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March 28, 2014: Nothing But Time

Alessandro Magnasco, detail of "Interrogations in Jail" (1710)

" least knew where they were immediately going, and had a very rough unconscious idea as to their ultimate destination on this planet. They imagined that they would one day, having worn their lives out in beetle-service, die, more or less painfully and slowly, in bed. And most of them did. But the red-haired Gorse...did not have even this trivial advantage in unconscious foreknowledge.

For he was to die painlessly and quickly. And he was not to do so in bed."

--Patrick Hamilton, Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse

I'm a tired man, but even when tired, I try to maintain my manners. If I spent the night tossing and turning, throwing the sheets off, pulling them back on, flopping my head on the pillow, I will attempt to be peaceable when the coffee is served scalding, or without a cup. But there are happenings out there in the wide world that make me bend my Emily Post until the spine snaps. And one polite fiction I'd like to see observed, say, more politely, is that of the death penalty as a rock-ribbed dispenser of justice.

The authorities could have deigned to say, perhaps, "sorry" to Iwao Hakamada. Instead, Japanese prosecutors are appealing the decision to free the seventy-eight year old ex-boxer, after DNA evidence exonerated him in the 1966 quadruple murder that put him on death row. I'm willing to bet Hakamada probably doesn't care about the burdens of the docket, at this point. He already experienced the pressure and police torture which extracted a false confession from him all those years ago, in what proved to be only the beginning of his troubles.

There are only two photos I could easily find of Hakamada. One is of him as a young man -- taciturn, with a flat nose, he looks every bit the professional welterweight he was. The other is of a stooping elderly man, trudging out of prison, wearing the clothes his surviving family brought. The forty-eight years in between is some lacuna, never photographed, into which the makings of what should have been a life were dumped.   

Of course, we don't have to cross an ocean to find Iwao Hakamada. We can ask Glenn Ford, who spent thirty years on death row in Louisiana for a murder he did not commit. Ford was similarly denied a fair trial: with an all-white jury, an unreliable informant, and ambulance chasers as his defense counsel, he was headed to Angola. And even in freedom, of course, it is a sad story: Isadore Rozeman's murderer goes unpunished, just as he did the thirty years Ford spent in a hole.

And what of the people whose names we don't even know? Both Hakamada and Ford had time, nothing but sullen, deadlocked time, in which to protest their innocence, and, remarkably, they were eventually heeded. But most death row inmates eventually run out of time. You can ask for the names. You will want to ask very quietly, and politely. They're written in stone, propped up in whatever pauper's field they bury them in.

General Gandhi

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