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Child killer asks to be hanged

IN LESS than a week, Westley Allan Dodd is due to be led from his cell on Death Row and escorted to an elderly gallows to become the first person hanged in the United States for nearly three decades.

Dodd, a 31-year-old child killer, is to be executed by the usually progressive-minded western state of Washington, one of three states where the traditional noose survives for capital punishment.

His pending death has prompted an outcry from civil liberties groups which argue that hanging (abolished by Britain in 1965), is barbaric, and violates a clause in the US constitution banning cruel and inhumane punishment. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Washington taxpayers in an effort to block the execution, scheduled for 5 January.

But their argument is complicated by one awkward detail. Dodd wants to be hanged. He has admitted torturing, raping and killing three young boys, including a four-year-old whom he strangled and hanged in a cupboard after assaulting him for two days.

Dodd says he should die like his infant victim, and has waived all appeals, insisting that he is incurable. 'I must be executed before I have an opportunity to escape or kill someone else,' he stated in court documents. 'If I do escape, I promise you I will kill and rape again, and I will enjoy every minute of it.'

The ACLU argues that Dodd's wishes make no difference. 'The fact that someone wants to be hanged in no way eliminates the unconstitutionality of it,' said Jerry Sheehan, legislative director of the ACLU in Washington. 'He may want to be drawn and quartered by the government. It would still be unconstitutional.' It has assembled a stash of gruesome medical evidence showing that hangings can go badly wrong. There are cases of victims being partially or totally decapitated, or taking minutes to die.

But the ACLU faces a further stumbling block. Washington state gives Death Row prisoners the option of a lethal injection, which Dodd could have taken. He is the first man to be hanged by the state since 1963, when a mugger went to the gallows for killing a taxi driver for a few dollars.

An executioner at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, 300 miles south-east of Seattle, is being specially trained, using a manual partially based on military execution methods. The last prison hanging in the US was in Kansas, in 1965, when four men were executed.

If Dodd does hang, becoming the 185th person executed since the US resumed capital punishment in 1977, there are other reasons why his case will not be forgotten. He is partially responsible for an unusual state law, which has also outraged civil liberties groups and is being challenged in court.

When Dodd was arrested, it emerged that he had committed a series of previous offences, but had never been jailed for more than four months at a time. On several occasions, the courts released him on the promise that he agreed to treatment - which he says he made because it allowed him to go on stalking children. His case coincided with that of another repeated sex offender who, on release from prison, badly mutilated a seven-year-old.

The ensuing public outcry prompted the state legislature unanimously to pass a law allowing repeat sex offenders to be imprisoned after they have completed prison sentences on the grounds that there is a high risk that they will commit a future offence. When certain offenders are due for release, state prosecutors can ask a jury to detain them indefinitely. A handful of men are now being held under this clause - not for what they have done, but for what they might do.

(Photograph omitted)