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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…

Japan: Aum executions open door for more debate into death penalty

Execution chamber at Tokyo Detention Center
TOKYO - While the execution of Aum Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara and six of the group's former senior members may have drawn the curtain on a string of crimes that shocked Japan, it opens the door for society to engage in further debate about the death penalty.

At a time when the global trend is toward abolishing capital punishment, Japan's death penalty system has sparked international criticism, especially over the secrecy surrounding its executions, and prompted critics to push for its abolition.

Even so, Friday's execution of the seven death row inmates reflected the Justice Ministry's sensitivity not only to the feelings of victims and their families, but a strong public resentment against the deadly crimes perpetrated by him.

Asahara had masterminded numerous murders including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that led to the deaths of 29 people among a total of over 6,500 victims. The sarin gas attack also shattered Japan's public safety image.

With their deaths, Japan will now have to grapple with the aftermath of unanswered questions over the crimes -- with no longer any chance of hearing explanations directly from Asahara or the six others.

Yuji Ogawara, who heads a lawyers' group against the death penalty at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said the executions do not bring closure to Aum's crimes.

"We should have heard more stories from the people involved and deepened discussions in society to get to the bottom as to why such crimes related to religion happened," Ogawara said.

As time passes, public memories of the crime may fade away. Victims, families and their supporters, as well as those involved in the legal system believe it is necessary to come to terms with the crimes and draw lessons from them to avoid a similar incident happening again.

Until his execution, there was little information about Asahara.

At the time of his arrest, he was vocal. But he fell silent halfway through the proceedings of his trial, which started in 1996, and began exhibiting baffling behavior. In detention, he also refused to meet his family and lawyers from 2008.

In January 2018, officials at the Tokyo Detention House told relatives that Asahara would not step out from his cell even if they pulled his hand to do so.

His family had said he was mentally incompetent, making it impossible for him to be executed as stipulated in Japan's law of criminal procedure. But the ministry has denied this claim.

How the ministry judged him to be mentally competent is also one of the things that remains under wraps.

Recounting how the doomsday cult attracted educated youths, Tadashi Moriyama, a Takushoku University professor, said he feels that "it was not fully revealed at the trial or among researchers why many highly educated people or those with high social status were involved in the crimes."

"With the execution, I feel that the opportunity to discover (why) has been lost," Moriyama said.

Even though the death penalty has been under fire by international rights groups, a majority of the Japanese public has shown its support for it.

A 2014 government survey showed that 80.3 percent of Japanese people aged 20 or older favored capital punishment, down from a record 85.6 percent in the previous survey in 2009.

The ministry said that as of Friday, the number of death-row inmates with their sentences finalized was at 117, one of whom is under retrial.

"The death system is very much criticized by the international community, and there are still issues involving those seeking retrial or death sentences for those suspected to be mentally incompetent," Ogawara said.

Against such a backdrop, he added that the executions must now pave the way for "broader discussions on whether to abolish or retain the death penalty."

Amnesty International criticized Japan on Friday for the executions, saying capital punishment does not deliver justice for the victims of crimes committed by the doomsday cult.

"Justice demands accountability but also respect for everyone's human rights. The death penalty can never deliver this as it is the ultimate denial of human rights," Hiroka Shoji, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Shoji said the seven deserved to be punished for the "despicable" attacks but "the death penalty is never the answer."

Source: Japan Today, Staff, July 7, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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