Doctor casts doubt on 'painless' executions

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LOS ANGELES - Civil liberties groups trying to block the execution of Westley Allan Dodd produced a report co-authored by Ryk James, from the Wales Institute of Forensic Medicine, Cardiff, which found only three cases in 34 hangings in Britain where victims died from the traditional 'hangman's fracture', writes Phil Reeves.

However, Washington state's Supreme Court late on Monday cleared the way for the hanging to go ahead in the early hours yesterday by rejecting a civil liberties lawsuit claiming it is an inhumane form of execution. It was the first official hanging in the United States in 28 years, and the first execution in the usually progressive state since 1963. Mr Dodd, 31, had admitted sexually attacking and killing three boys - aged 11, 10 and four - and insisted throughout that he wished to hang.

Yesterday Dr James, 29, who is based in Cardiff, declined to name the three prisons where the bodies were examined. The bodies were of condemned men and women aged between 19 and 57, who were hanged between 1882-1945 by seven different hangmen. He said he had access to the remains because they were exhumed prior to development work at the prisons. Although they were in unmarked graves, their identities were still on record.

But his findings appear to question the claims of the British authorities at the time, who insisted that hangings were swift and problem-free. Dr James, and his co-author, Rachel Nasmyth-Jones, also concluded that post mortems, carried out after hangings, were 'grossly inaccurate with regard to fractures'. Medical evidence supplied to coroners was scanty; there was a tendency to exaggerate the number of times hanged men and women died from fractures.

They found that death, or at least unconsciousness, was usually quick in hangings, although not in all cases. In three of the cases 'hangman's fracture' occurred, but the cause of death appears most often to have been the result of damage to the spinal cord, caused by cervical dislocation. However, they also drew attention to contemporary reports of victims being decapitated, or failing to die immediately.

'There is persistent controversy regarding its (long-drop hanging) faultless rapidity of action which questions any universal description of the death as being 'almost instantaneous' ', said their report, 'The Occurrence of Cervical Fractures in Victims of Judicial Hanging', published in Forensic Science International.

They concluded: 'This has an important implication: most modern societies agree that any method of execution should be virtually immediate and painless, and the rapidity of any mode of capital punishment is therefore a central issue concerning the acceptance of its use. Should any government re-introduce the death penalty the use of hanging as a suitable means must be seriously questioned.'