Archive for May 10th, 2008

1987: Sadamichi Hirasawa, by old age

7 comments May 10th, 2008 Headsman

There is a joke in which some tyrant, having tired of a quick-witted minister in his employ, condemns the wretch to death — but adds that, in view of past good service, the victim will have liberty to choose the method. Thinking fast, the minister chooses old age.

On this date in 1987, something like that finally happened to Sadamichi Hirasawa, who died at age 95 after 37 years under sentence of death and 32 on death row. He was thought at the time to be the longest-serving condemned prisoner in the world, and few before or since could contend with him for the “honor.”

Hirasawa’s self-portrait at age 88. From a pro-Hirasawa site, via the blog hmmm.

Hirasawa, a tempera artist of some note, was convicted and death-sentenced in 1950 for a bizarre crime known as the “Teigin Incident” in which the culprit posed as an official in the American occupation and convinced the staff of a bank to take an elixir against an alleged dysentery outbreak. The potion turned out to be cyanide, and the culprit ransacked the bank while its staff lay dying around him.

Though the Japanese Supreme Court confirmed the sentence in 1955, exposing Hirasawa to immediate execution upon the authorization of any justice minister, widespread doubt about his guilt made the case a hot potato from the start. Time magazine reported authorities hoping that he’d be conveniently killed by poor prison conditions instead of hanging — in 1963.

Hirasawa just kept living, and justice ministers just kept his death warrant on the to-do list. The infamy of the crime made it too dicey to clear him;* the potential infamy of the hanging made equally dicey to carry out the sentence. Hirasawa knew it himself. In a secret 1980 recording after a rejected appeal, he jibes, “If they think they can hang me, they should go ahead and try.”

Eventually, Hirasawa provided the rare test case of the question of whether a 30-year statute of limitations could apply to a hanging. (Answer: no.)

The powers that be must have been relieved to see him go this day, but he’s not out of their hair yet. Hirasawa’s art is still being exhibited and his heirs are still fighting to clear his name.

* Innocence theories also focus on a chemical and biological warfare unit with a serious rap sheet from the occupation of China; at least one investigator suspected them early on, before official attention suspiciously switched to Hirasawa. No Japanese government ever had an interest in reopening that story, nor the comcomitant police cock-ups (or cover-ups) it would imply.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,History,Japan,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Theft,Wrongful Executions




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