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1987: Sadamichi Hirasawa, by old age

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

7 thoughts on “1987: Sadamichi Hirasawa, by old age”

  1. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    Make that: …join those THEY murdered…

  2. Kevin M. Sullivan says:

    State sponsored killing is not murder, is not cruel and unusual punishment, and is a completely fitting answer to homicidal crimes.
    The problem, however, is that many people translate their good and kind natures into an odd type of “free pass” for some of the most despicable people to ever walk the earth. Indeed, it is usually the case that such folks have always kept themselves nicely tucked away from the reality (and the facts) of the killer’s crimes. And then, as if listening for God’s applause from Heaven, they embrace the monster, and quickly decide that the killer’s life is as precious as the person they destroyed (and of course, this would include all of the victim’s family and friends). The truth of the matter is this: To allow an evil killer to remain alive for an undetermined amount of years; years that will be filled with watching TV, eating, enjoying visits from folks, and breathing the very same air they deprived of others, is about as stupid as it gets. No, such folks need to join those the murdered, and to do so as quickly as possible.

  3. edward c. stengel says:

    That’s a truly amazing case. It’s almost the same here in the U.S.
    Although the death penalty remains on the books, with the exception of the states of Texas, Florida, and Virginia, most states don’t really want to impose it. About 12 have banned it altogehter and with the exception of the 3 above-named states, the other remaining 35 don’t want to carry it out. So, why not just abolish it.
    In fact, it’s obvious that both Japan and the U.S. know captial punishment is uncivilized. They just don’t seem to be able to publicly admit it like most of the rest of the world has done.

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