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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Aum cult founder Asahara, 6 followers hanged

Shoko Asahara, leader of the cult Aum Shinrikyo
TOKYO - Aum Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara, who was convicted of numerous murders including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, was executed Friday along with six former senior members of the cult, the Justice Ministry said.

Asahara, 63, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, was sentenced to death for masterminding the subway attack and other acts that resulted in the deaths of 29 people. He was among 13 people placed on death row in connection with the string of crimes perpetrated by the doomsday cult.

The six others executed on the same day were Yoshihiro Inoue, 48, Tomomitsu Niimi, 54, Tomomasa Nakagawa, 55, Kiyohide Hayakawa, 68, Masami Tsuchiya, 53, and Seiichi Endo, 58. Inoue filed for a retrial in March.

In the same month, seven of the Aum death row inmates were transferred from the detention center to other facilities across the country, fanning speculation they could be executed anytime. Some of those transferred were not among the seven hanged Friday.

Victims of Aum crimes and their families largely welcomed the executions, which came decades after the crimes were committed. Some said Japan has now lost a chance to hear an account of the crimes from Matsumoto, who had remained mostly silent since his arrest.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga confirmed Asahara has been hanged and said police are increasing vigilance toward the cult's successor organization, Aleph, following the executions ordered by Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa.

Kamikawa is expected to hold a press conference about the executions in the afternoon.

Asahara was arrested in May 1995, just under two months after the March 20 subway attack, which claimed the lives of 13 people and left more than 6,200 others injured.

In a February 2004 ruling, the Tokyo District Court found Asahara guilty of all 13 charges and sentenced him to death, saying, "We have to say that the motivation and purpose of the crimes were too outrageous and ridiculous, as he tried to control Japan in the name of salvation."

Asahara was also convicted of masterminding a June 1994 sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, which killed eight people and injured more than 100.

He was also convicted of the murders of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who had been helping parents seeking to free their children of the cult's control, and his wife and their 1-year-old son in November 1989. The death sentence against him was finalized in 2006.

Gallows at Tokyo Detention CenterAfter his arrest and the start of his trial in April 1996, Asahara began exhibiting baffling behavior in the courtroom and detention facilities, often remaining silent or just mumbling.

His execution came as a slew of trials involving Aum members came to an end after more than 20 years with the Supreme Court's decision on Jan. 18 to reject an appeal against a life sentence filed by Katsuya Takahashi, the last former member on trial.

Japan forgoes executing death row inmates if an accomplice is still on trial. Around 190 people were indicted for crimes involving AUM Shinrikyo, and Asahara's first trial alone took seven years and 10 months to complete at the Tokyo District Court.

Aum evolved from a yoga school established by Asahara in 1984. It renamed itself to Aleph in 2000 and two splinter groups have been formed, including one established by high-profile former member Fumihiro Joyu.

The Public Security Intelligence Agency continued to monitor the groups, believing they were still under the influence of Asahara. The followers of the three groups total about 1,650 in Japan and about 460 in Russia, while the groups hold more than 1 billion yen ($9 million) in assets, according to the agency.

Asahara told his followers he is the incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration, and urged them to entrust themselves and their assets to Shiva and himself for life, according to prosecutors who indicted him.

After he and 24 other Aum members unsuccessfully ran in the House of Representatives election in 1990 in an attempt to take over the state, he started planning mass murders of members of the public in revenge, according to the prosecutors.

Mentally competent


Asahara had suffered no psychiatric problems, according to sources with knowledge of his behavior in a detention facility. He used to be seen sitting silently without speaking to guards.

However, he was able to stand up on his own when he was told to take a bath once in several days at the Tokyo Detention House, the sources said.

Asahara's family had claimed he was mentally incompetent and could not be executed as stipulated in Japan's law of criminal procedure, but multiple Justice Ministry sources denied any abnormality in his mental status.

Since mid-2008, Asahara had declined all meeting requests from hs family and lawyers.

According to the sources, the cult founder's appearance completely changed after his arrest when he had his hair cut short and removed his beard. He spent most of the day sitting in his solitary cell but was communicating with a doctor who regularly came to check his condition.

Refusing to use a toilet in the cell, he always wore a diaper and was seen sometimes with rough skin.

A document submitted by the detention center to the Yokohama family court in May 2015 said, "Based on the diagnosis by a psychiatrist, he maintains body functions and at least has no explicit psychiatric disorders."

The document was submitted in connection with a request made by a daughter of Asahara to nullify her parents' right to inherit her property in the event of her death.

Source: Japan Today, July 6, 2018


Justice minister says she ordered Aum executions after 'careful consideration'


Police officers in front of Tokyo Detention Center.
TOKYO - Japanese Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa, who ordered the executions of Aum Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara and six of his followers, said Friday capital punishment is "unavoidable" for heinous crimes.

At a press conference hours after the executions, Kamikawa said she made the order after "careful consideration" because the death penalty is an extremely serious punishment that ends a person's life.

Kamikawa said she is aware of various opinions as to whether Japan should continue to have capital punishment.

But she defended the death penalty at the Justice Ministry, saying it is necessary for those committing atrocious crimes, otherwise such offenses will continue to happen, and much of the public also believes in the system.

Japan's capital punishment has drawn international criticism as most developed countries have already done away with the system. But debate on abolishing the death penalty remains sluggish in the country.

Earlier in the day, the seven death-row inmates were executed for their roles in the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which claimed the lives of 13 people and left more than 6,200 others injured, among other crimes.

Kamikawa explained that the series of crimes committed by the Aum members were "systematic, well-planned and unprecedented" and terrified the world by using chemical weapons.

"It is needless to say that finalized court rulings should be rigorously implemented in a country ruled by law," said Kamikawa, who also ordered two executions in late 2017.

A justice minister should respond to court rulings and deliberation must be made particularly "in a careful and calm manner" for the death penalty, she said.

During the one hour-long press conference, the think tank researcher-turned minister, who returned to the post in last August, repeatedly looked at documents believed to be prepared by ministry officials and merely read aloud what was written in them in response to a barrage of questions from reporters.

Kamikawa said she had sealed the execution order documents on Tuesday, but avoided answering other key questions, for example, why the seven were selected from the 13 Aum death-row inmates and why the punishment was carried out at this time.

She ordered the execution of one inmate when she previously served as justice minister between 2014 and 2015.

Asahara was executed along with Yoshihiro Inoue, 48, Tomomitsu Niimi, 54, Tomomasa Nakagawa, 55, Kiyohide Hayakawa, 68, Masami Tsuchiya, 53, and Seiichi Endo, 58. Asahara was executed at a Tokyo detention center, while the others were hanged at the same detention center as well as those in Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka.

In March, seven of the 13 Aum death row inmates were transferred from the Tokyo detention center to other facilities across the country, fanning speculation they could be executed anytime. Some of those transferred were not among the seven hanged Friday.

Gallows and trapdoor, as seen from the control room
Inoue, who was among the transferred seven, filed for a retrial at the time. Japan usually does not execute people who are seeking retrial.

The move drew sharp criticism from some lawmakers as well as Amnesty International, which called capital punishment "the ultimate denial of human rights."

Victims of Aum crimes and their families largely welcomed the move, which came decades after the crimes were committed due to prolonged trials. Some said Japan has now lost a chance to hear an account of the crimes from Matsumoto, who had stopped making meaningful speeches from the middle of his first trial, which started in April 1996.

"The time has come. That was my only thought," said Shizue Takahashi, 71, who lost her then-50-year-old husband, the assistant stationmaster Kazumasa, in the Tokyo subway sarin attack, adding many others had been waiting for the day.

"A third of my life has been affected by Aum. Thinking that makes me feel frustrated," Takahashi said.

Aum evolved from a yoga school established by Asahara in 1984 and had about 1,400 live-in followers and over 10,000 lay followers at one point. It renamed itself Aleph in 2000 and two splinter groups have been formed, including one established by high-profile former member Fumihiro Joyu.

Following reports of the executions, Joyu reiterated his apology to people affected by Aum but said he is no longer part of the original cult.

"As I also bear a heavy responsibility, I would like to apologize to the victims," he said, although adding, "I have left Aleph more than 10 years ago, and I don't have any special feelings (for Asahara)."

Source: Japan Today, July 6, 2018


Japan executes seven cult leaders behind Tokyo Sarin attacks


Gallows Tokyo Detention Center
Seven members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult which carried out a deadly chemical attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995 have been executed, including cult leader Shoko Asahara.

The Sarin attack, Japan's worst terror incident, killed 13 people and injured thousands more.

The executions took place at a Tokyo detention house on Friday morning.

Japan does not give prior notice of executions, but they were later confirmed by the justice ministry.

Shoko Asahara and his followers were also accused of several other murders and an earlier Sarin gas attack in 1994 which killed eight and left 600 injured.

Their execution, by hanging, had been postponed until all those convicted had completed their final appeals. That happened in January.

Another six members of the cult are still on death row.

What was the Tokyo attack?


On 20 March 1995, cult members released the Sarin on the subway in the Japanese capital. They left punctured bags filled with liquid nerve agent on train lines going through Tokyo's political district.

Witnesses described noticing the leaking packages and soon afterwards feeling stinging fumes hitting their eyes.

The toxin struck victims down in a matter of seconds, leaving them choking and vomiting, some blinded and paralysed. Thirteen people died.

In the following months, members of the cult carried out several failed attempts at releasing hydrogen cyanide in various stations.

The attack shocked Japan, a country that prided itself on low crime rates and social cohesion.

Scores of Aum members have faced trial over the attack - 13 were sentenced to death, including Asahara.

Another six are serving life sentences.

What is the Aum Shinrikyo cult?


Sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway
The cult, whose name means "supreme truth", began in the 1980s as a spiritual group mixing Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, later working in elements of apocalyptic Christian prophesies.

The group's founder, Shoko Asahara, also known as Chizuo Matsumoto, declared himself to be both Christ and the first "enlightened one" since Buddha.

Aum Shinrikyo gained official status as a religious organisation in Japan in 1989 and picked up a sizeable global following. At its peak, Asahara had tens of thousands of followers worldwide.

The group gradually became a paranoid doomsday cult, convinced the world was about to end in a global war and that only they would survive.

The cult went underground after the 1995 attack, but did not disappear, eventually renaming itself Aleph or Hikari no Wa.

Aum Shinrikyo is designated a terrorist organisation in the US and many other countries, but Aleph and Hikari no Wa are both legal in Japan, although designated as "dangerous religions" subject to surveillance.

It still has followers both in Japan and also worldwide, in particular in some countries of the former Soviet Union.

In 2016, police in Russia conducted a number of raids on suspected cult members in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Why has the execution been so delayed?


In Japan, death sentences are not carried out until the verdict against all accused and accomplices are final, with no pending appeals left against any of the group.

The trials against the cult members only wrapped up in January this year after the Supreme Court upheld the verdict against one member sentenced to life in prison.

There has been strong public support for the Aum convicts to be put to death.

Since an effective moratorium ended in 2010, Japan has executed as many as eight people a year.

The death penalty is only used for serious cases of murder and is carried out by hanging.

Officials do not give advance public notification - condemned prisoners themselves are usually only told they are to die a few hours before the sentence is carried out.

Source: BBC News, July 6, 2018


Aum Shinrikyo guru Shoko Asahara and six other cult members hanged for mass murders


Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko AsaharaShoko Asahara, founder of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo and mastermind behind the deadly 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system — and a number of other horrific crimes in the 1980s and ’90s — was executed on Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

According to government sources, six other condemned Aum members — Tomomasa Nakagawa, 55, Kiyohide Hayakawa, 68, Yoshihiro Inoue, 48, Masami Tsuchiya, 53, and Seiichi Endo, 58, and Tomomitsu Niimi, 54, — were also executed.

In total, Asahara, 63, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, was found guilty for his role in 13 crimes that led to the deaths of 27 people that later was increased to 29. In the Tokyo subway attack, 13 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured.

The death penalty for the guru of the now-disbanded cult was first handed down by the Tokyo District Court in February 2004 and finalized by the Supreme Court in September 2006.

The crimes he was convicted of also include the murders of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and their 1-year-old son in November 1989 and another sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in June 1994. That attack killed eight and left about 600 injured.

Asahara’s execution was delayed while the lengthy court proceedings involving other key Aum followers accused of complicity in the crimes played out, all of which concluded on Jan. 25 of this year.

In addition to Asahara, 191 Aum members were indicted over a number of criminal acts — including murders, attempted murders, abductions and the production of deadly nerve gases and illegal automatic rifles. Twelve had their death penalty sentences finalized.

The hanging of Asahara has in some ways closed the curtain on the shocking crimes and dramatic events staged by Aum. But it also leaves several critical questions unanswered, because even during his trial, Asahara never explained the actual motivations for the crimes.

Over the past 10 years, the guru reportedly turned down all requests from outside the prison for a meeting, even from family members. During the trials and interviews with his lawyers, Asahara often remained silent or uttered words that no one could clearly understand. The difficulty in communicating with him prompted his counsel to claim that he was not mentally competent to stand trial.

In 2006, the Supreme Court, however, rejected a special appeal and finalized the death sentence. The court ruled Asahara was legally sane and thus could be held responsible for his actions.

Asahara, born in 1955 in what today is the city of Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, formed the predecessor of Aum Shinrikyo in 1984.

By around October 1988, the number of lay followers surged to between 3,000 and 4,000 and that of live-in followers was estimated at between 100 and 200.

In that period, the cult had head offices in Tokyo and Kamikuishiki, a village in Yamanashi Prefecture. It also had branch offices in Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Sapporo, New York and Russia.

In the vast compound in Kamikuishiki at the foot of Mount Fuji, Aum Shinrikyo, under the instruction of Asahara, built and operated a chemical plant to mass-produce sarin and another to assemble illegal automatic rifles.

The execution scene from "SPEC - First Blood", by TBS TelevisionThe doomsday cult successfully recruited a number of highly-educated young people, including doctors and scientists, some of whom took part in the crimes — a fact that particularly shocked the Japanese public.

Many Aum members were featured on live TV shows, openly defending the group. The media exposure helped solidify the group’s lasting impact on the public’s collective consciousness.

In particular, the 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo is remembered as a watershed event that deeply damaged the long-held sense of security felt by many in postwar Japan.

Asahara claimed that Armageddon was inevitable and justified the murders of certain people by insisting they would send their souls to the heavenly world, according to court transcripts.

During a hearing in June 2001, Tomomasa Nakagawa, a former doctor who played a key role in the cult’s production of sarin gas, begged his guru to explain what he was actually thinking when he instructed followers to commit illegal, violent acts.

In response, Asahara, with his eyes closed, just mumbled words no one could understand, according to media reports.

“I didn’t enter the priesthood (of Aum Shinrikyo) to produce sarin or choke someone’s neck,” Nakagawa tearfully said during the hearing.

“Please explain your ideas to the people who believed in you,” Nakagawa recalled saying in vain.

Nakagawa himself is on death row for the roles he played in the production of sarin gas and the 1989 murders of the Sakamoto family.

Source: The Japan Times, Reiji Yoshida, July 6, 2018


Japan Executes Leader of Doomsday Cult


In the aftermath of the deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.
Aum Shinrikyo head Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, had been on death row since 2004

The head of a Japanese doomsday cult and 6 of his followers convicted for deadly gas attacks in the 1990s were executed on Friday, Japan's justice minister said.

Cult leader Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, had been on death row since 2004.

During morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, members of the cult he led, Aum Shinrikyo, punctured plastic bags with sarin nerve gas on 3 Tokyo subway lines, killing 13 people and injuring more than 6,000.

The attack shook the image of Japan as a safe and orderly society, as victims suffered excruciating pain, many of them sprawled on the streets and subway platforms.

Matsumoto, who was 63 years old, was 1 of 13 cult members sentenced to hang for their part in the attack. An earlier sarin gas attack by the cult in central Japan in 1994 killed 7 people.

The cult also used other nerve agents against Japanese citizens, including VX, which was used to kill the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year.

A 1999 report on antiterrorism capabilities by the Gilmore Commission in the U.S. said that Aum Shinrikyo at one point had enough sarin to kill 4.2 million people, in addition to other biochemical weapons such as anthrax.

Aum Shinrikyo was formed by Matsumoto in the 1980s. It practiced a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism before turning into a paranoid apocalyptic cult centered on its leader, who claimed to be a messiah.

The group set up a commune at the foot of Mount Fuji where Matsumoto preached to his followers and Aum's scientists produced nerve gas.

Aum had about 10,000 members in Japan at its peak in the 1990s, and thousands more in Russia and other countries. A successor group of the cult remains active in Japan with around 1,500 members, according to the police.

Matsumoto, who was partially blind and instantly recognizable to many Japanese, lost his final appeal to overturn his death sentence in September 2006. He rarely spoke and didn't testify in court.

After Matsumoto was hanged at a detention center in Tokyo, 6 other senior figures in the cult were executed in major cities across Japan, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa said at a press conference.

Ms. Kamikawa listed more than a dozen criminal convictions against Matsumoto and others in the group, including the 1989 murder of an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and 1-year-old son. In the 1994 attack, Aum members sprayed sarin gas at a local apartment complex where judges hearing a case against the cult resided.

Matsumoto imagined he would one day rule Japan as a king and produced deadly gases to pursue his goal, Ms. Kamikawa said.

Death sentences are only carried out in Japan when all court proceedings against the accused and others in related cases have concluded. Expectations rose that Matsumoto would be executed when the country's Supreme Court upheld a ruling of life imprisonment earlier this year for a cult member, the last open case against the group.

Japan carries out a few executions most years, always by hanging and almost always for murder. The previous executions were late last year, of 2 men convicted of murder.

Opinion polls generally show strong public support in Japan for the death penalty. Activists who oppose it highlight how prisoners can spend years on death row but are usually only given a few hours' notice of their execution.

"The majority of people [in Japan] think the death penalty is necessary for extremely brutal and malicious crimes," Ms. Kamikawa said.

Chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the police were on alert for any attempts at retaliation for the executions.

Source: Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2018


Japan executes sarin gas attack cult leader Shoko Asahara and 6 members


Gallows trapdoor, Tokyo Detention Center
Aum Shinrikyo's sarin nerve attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 killed 13 people and caused illness among thousands of others

The former leader of the doomsday cult that carried out a fatal gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995 was executed on Friday .

Shoko Asahara, who masterminded the attack in which 13 people died and more than 6,000 others fell ill, was hanged at a detention centre.

Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, confirmed Asahara's execution. The justice ministry later confirmed that 6 other senior cult members were executed on the same day.

"I think it's right that he was executed," said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband, a subway worker, died after removing 1 of the sarin packages.

"My husband's parents and my parents are already dead," she added. "I think they would find it regrettable that they could not have heard the news of this execution."

Kiyoe Iwata, whose daughter died in the attack, said the news had given her peace of mind. "I have always been wondering why it had to be my daughter and why she had to be killed," she told public broadcaster NHK. "Now I can visit her grave and tell her this news."

Asahara's execution was the 1st of 13 former Aum members who have been condemned to death.

His Aum Supreme Truth cult, which combined a bizarre mix of Buddhist and Hindu meditation along with Christian and apocalyptic teachings, yoga and the occult, once boasted more than 10,000 followers in Japan and an estimated 30,000 in Russia.

Its members included graduates of Japan's best universities, who were attracted by promises that they would survive the coming Armageddon - a nuclear attack by the US - by developing sarin, a nerve agent invented by the Nazis, at the cult's compound in the foothills of Mount Fuji.

Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, had also been found guilty of masterminding a 1994 attack on a city in northern Japan in which 8 people died and more than 100 were injured.

The former cult leader had exhausted all of his appeals after he was sentenced to death in 2004.

The Tokyo subway gas attack began shortly before 8am on 20 March 1995, when 5 members of the cult punctured plastic bags containing liquid sarin with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas before fleeing.

As the gas spread inside packed subway carriages, commuters started to cough and struggle for breath. Some of those who made it on to platforms and upstairs to street level collapsed, foaming at the mouth and coughing up blood.

Survivors recalled smelling something that resembled paint thinner before starting to cough uncontrollably. "Liquid was spread on the floor in the middle of the carriage, people were convulsing in their seats. One man was leaning against a pole, his shirt open, bodily fluids leaking out," Sakae Ito, who was inside on one of the carriages, told Agence France-Presse.

TV footage showed members of self-defence forces, dressed in hazmat suits and full face masks, descending flights of stairs, still unaware of what had caused the incident.

The attack was the worst terrorist incident on Japanese soil and rocked the country's faith in its reputation for public safety.

Asahara eluded arrest for 2 months until he was discovered hiding in a tiny space concealed behind a wall, along with piles of cash and a sleeping bag, at the cult's compound.

Aum was banned but resurfaced in 2000 as Aleph, whose members claimed they had disowned Asahara and agreed to pay compensation to the gas attack victims.

There have been claims, however, that some continue to follow Asahara's teachings and keep photographs of him and audio recordings of his voice for inspiration.

Several dozen members living at Aleph's headquarters, 3 ageing apartment blocks in suburban Tokyo, are kept under 24-hour surveillance.

Born in 1955 on the southwestern island of Kyushu, Asahara, who was virtually blind, was regarded as a charismatic leader who began to draw recruits to Aum, which had originally started as a yoga school, in the 1980s.

A vengeful Asahara started targeting members of the public after he and 24 other Aum members unsuccessfully ran in upper house elections in 1990, according to prosecutors.

Aleph and 2 smaller splinter groups have about 1,650 followers in Japan and about 460 in Russia, and hold more than 1 billion yen (US$9m) in assets, Kyodo news said, citing data from Japan's public security intelligence agency.

Human rights campaigners condemned the use of the death penalty against Aum members.

Amnesty International said Friday's executions "do not deliver justice."

Source: The Guardian, Justin McCurry, July 6, 2018



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