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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

What Life Is Like After 46 Years On Death Row

Iwao taking a walk with his sister Hideko
Iwao taking a walk with his sister Hideko
What would you be like if you'd spent the last half-century isolated in a tiny room, not knowing if you were going to make it to the end of the day alive? That is the question Kim Sungwoong asks in Freedom Moon, a new documentary about the Japanese former professional boxer Iwao Hakamada, who was sentenced to death in 1968 for a mass murder. He was held on death row for nearly 46 years – a world record – before his release in 2014.

In 1966, there was a fire at the home of one of Iwao's bosses. According to Iwao, he helped extinguish the fire, only to find the bodies of the executive, his wife and two children, all stabbed to death. Two months later, Iwao confessed to the crime and was arrested. But when the case reached court he immediately retracted his confession, claiming he had been forced into it after sustained periods of torture.

According to his lawyers, Iwao was interrogated for 264 hours over 23 days. Other evidence of Iwao's guilt was shaky: a small amount of gasoline and blood were allegedly found on pyjamas that Iwao was wearing that night. This evidence was later changed to "bloodstained clothes", but the clothes in question would not have fitted Iwao.

Various appeals for a retrial were denied, but once Norimichi Kumamoto – one of the judges who originally convicted Iwao – came out in support of his innocence, the fight gained momentum, and in 2014 he was finally granted a retrial. The presiding judge admitted "the possibility of [Iwao's] innocence has become clear to a respectable degree," and he was released from prison.

By this point, however, the damage to Iwao's life had already been done; he had been diagnosed with institutional psychosis several years prior to his release. This was arguably a result of Japan's inhumane method of detaining death row inmates in solitary confinement, in tiny cells, without any notice of their execution date.

On his release, Iwao was taken under the care of his sister, Hideko Hakamada, now 83, who had maintained that her brother was innocent since his arrest. It is this part of Iwao's life that director Kim Sungwoong documents in Freedom Moon.

Sungwoong spent one-and-a-half years with the siblings, following their progress as Hideko created a home for the two of them and Iwao was reintroduced to the outside world.

Osaka prison cell block where inmates are held in solitary confinement
Osaka prison cell block where inmates are held in solitary confinement
The first thing that hits you, on watching the film, is the severity of Iwao's condition. He paces around Hideko's small apartment, creating the same circle, time and time again, seemingly oblivious to other people. He appears to have lost sense of who he is, referring to himself at times as God, the head of all corporations, or an undefeated emperor.

"Because the case was so famous, at certain times – anniversaries, etc – mass media would come flying in, ask huge amounts of intrusive questions, then quickly leave," explains Sungwoong. These moments were perhaps the most uncomfortable parts of the film to watch; crowds of journalists and cameras packed into the tiny apartment with Iwao. Invariably, he was asked about "the incident" – the murder he was wrongly accused of – and each time he flatly denied such an event had ever occurred.

Sungwoong decided to do things differently to other Japanese media. "For the first six months of our filming, we never faced the camera towards him, and there were no questions about the incident. It just didn't feel like the right thing to do," he says. "And if I'd have asked, there would have been this same response of 'it didn't happen' and he'd retreat back into his own world."


Source: VICE, Cherry Casey, April 18, 2016

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