3 days to go before Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi is hanged at 6am on 26 Jan 2007.
What you’re about to read is a Nov 2005 news report about Nguyen Tuong Van. Just replace Nguyen’s name with Amara Tochi’s and you’ll have a picture of his final days till 6am on 26 Jan 2007……….
Place of execution: Singapore’s Changi Prison, where Nguyen Tuong Van is scheduled to hang in eight days. Photo: Craig Abraham
In his final days, Nguyen Tuong Van will get the best care Changi Prison has to offer. He will also be weighed and measured with clinical precision to help calculate the length for the rope from which he will hang.
If his treatment mirrors that of those who have gone before him, Nguyen is now living in strict isolation in a cell measuring about three metres by three metres. He has a toilet and a mat for sleeping, but no bedding and uses a bucket for washing. He is not permitted to go out for fresh air or exercise.
Next week, his status as a man close to execution should win him special concessions: food of his choice (within the prison’s budget) and extra visits from relatives. And a visit from the hangman, who will check his weight and measure the distance from Nguyen’s neck to the floor before going away to make his calculations according to a bureaucratic manual, the Official Table of Drops, published by the British Home Office in 1913.
Singapore is believed to use “the long drop” method, which is meant to be the most merciful. The correct length of the rope for an individual is crucial to the “success” of a hanging – if success is defined as a quick death with little suffering.
Normally, only jail staff and a doctor are present at executions in Singapore, although others, such as a minister of religion, may be admitted at the discretion of the prison superintendent.
Nguyen’s senior lawyer, Lex Lasry, QC, has applied to be a witness at the execution, along with fellow defence lawyer Julian McMahon.
“We’ve taken the view that, for our client’s sake, we’ve requested to be present at his execution,” Mr Lasry said yesterday. He has not yet heard from Singaporean authorities whether they will be allowed to attend.
Mr McMahon declined to discuss how he felt about the prospect of witnessing such an event. “Our focus at this stage is on what’s best for our client.”
Mr Lasry said he had been told not to attend by a lot of friends. “I’ve been cautioned about the consequences of it. People just think to be present at something like that would be a horrible thing and that inevitably there’s going to be a consequence – and I think they have Brian Morley in mind.”
Mr Morley, 69, was one of 12 journalists to witness the execution in Melbourne in 1967 of Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Australia.
Mr Morley said he had had some “indirect contact” with Mr Lasry. “He’s read all my stuff on Ryan so he’s mentally prepared for it.”
But all the preparation in the world could not insulate a witness from the shock of the moment, Mr Morley said. “He will still be very traumatised by it. I believe that if the premier of the day and his cabinet had witnessed Ryan’s execution, they would have abolished capital punishment on the spot.”
Mr Morley can still remember every detail “in vivid technicolour” and it distresses him to talk about it. He does so because, in the instant that Ryan fell through the trapdoor, Mr Morley became convinced that the death penalty should be abolished everywhere.
The journalists had gathered in D Division of the old Pentridge jail, keyed up by a string of public protests and intense political debate over the hanging. “It was a little bit like being in the press box at the MCG for the grand final – nervous excitement at the big story to be covered,” Mr Morley said.
A manacled Ryan was led by a hangman in welder’s goggles along a catwalk six metres above them. A green canvas sheet hid the area below the gallows’ trapdoors. Ryan turned to face the media before the cap on his head was pulled down into a hood covering his face.
“Then the hangman leapt back and hit the lever and he dropped immediately out of sight. There was an enormous clang as the trapdoors banged and all I could hear was the creaking of the rope, like a rope in a gymnasium,” he said.
Mr Morley had gone in with an open mind about the death penalty, but “for me it was a total emotional shock; so callous, so dreadful, so horrific . . . Everyone was traumatised, everyone who saw it. My wife said I was a real mess for a long time afterwards.”
Journalist Tom Prior was another witness. He was not available yesterday, but his wife said he had gone to Ryan’s hanging believing in the death penalty “because dead men never offend again”. He, too, converted to opposing it “in that instant. It changed him totally. He has spoken to his children and to me a lot about that.”
The Ryan hanging was traumatic for everyone associated with it, despite the dying man being hidden behind a screen. When the mechanics of the process have failed, the result is even more gruesome.
“If the rope’s too long, the forces build up as the body falls and the person is decapitated,” said Tim Goodwin, anti-death-penalty co-ordinator with Amnesty International. “If it’s too short, it doesn’t break the neck with sufficient violence and the person chokes to death over a longer period.”
There are other variables, he said, such as the importance of placing the knot of the noose just above the jaw under the left ear “in order to crush the vertebrae in a particular way and snap the neck. If the person moves at the last moment, it can cause the knot to be dislodged and it doesn’t have the desired effect. Then the person can slowly strangle to death.”
If all goes according to plan, the dislocation of the vertebrae and damage to the spinal cord render the person unconscious almost instantly. The broken neck while hanging leads to “comatose asphyxia” – lack of oxygen while unconscious. Brain death follows in about six minutes and whole-body death in about 15 minutes. Some people exhibit muscle spasms while they are hanging.
“There’s nothing about this that’s pretty,” Mr Goodwin said. “It’s a brutal and gruesome death.”
Singapore has people who cannot stomach execution. It has been reported that the current hangman has been difficult to replace, as two prison officers trained to take over each froze when it came to pulling the lever for “the real thing”.
So shortly before dawn tomorrow week – Friday is the day for hangings in Singapore – the hangman who has done the job for 46 years will handcuff Nguyen and lead him on his final walk to the gallows, a few metres from his cell.
As the rope is put around Nguyen’s neck, the executioner will say what he always says: “I am going to send you to a better place than this. God bless you.”
Nguyen will be hooded. At 6am precisely the hangman will pull the lever, the trapdoor will open and he will fall to his death.
The hangman will be paid $A312 for services rendered to the state of Singapore.