They call it “Blood Money” in Iran. In the United States, it is called making restitution but, in the United States, a condemned prisoner cannot buy his or her way off the gallows. In Iran, they can.
On April 16, 2014, in Iran, a convicted murderer was spared death at the gallows with his head in already in the noose, standing on a wooden chair, one second away from eternity, and instrument of his salvation was the mother of the man he murdered.
Back in 2007, a man known to the media only as Bilal, a teenager, stabbed 17-year-old Abdollah Hosseinzadeh to death in a street brawl. After seven years of appeals, the upcoming execution became the subject of intense nationwide debate in Iran as Bilal’s execution date drew near. with more than one million viewers texting messages of support for clemency during a live television program on the subject. Celebrities, including Oscar-winning director, Asghar Farhadia, publicly pleaded with the Hosseinzadeh family to forego vengeance and allow Bilal to live.
In Iran, and some other Muslim countries, convicted murderers have one last chance to escape the gallows….if the families of their victims choose to spare the murderers’ lives, often in exchange for “blood money.” Last year, alone, 369 Iranians were spared in this manner, according to one estimate, often at the very last second, when the families of the deceased chose to forego vengeance, a privilege afforded to them by Islamic law.
By tradition, the aggrieved family must participate in the execution in this manner so that the aggrieved shares the guilt and the grief from the executioner’s role in the process. In the end, Abdollah Hosseinzadeh’s parents, Alinejad and her husband Abdolghani Hosseinzadeh, decided to let Bilal live, but they let his life hang in the balance until the very last second. Bilal was blindfolded, the noose was placed around his neck, and he was left standing on a chair, waiting for the sentence to be carried out, when Mrs.Hosseinzadeh voiced her decision to forego her family’s vengeance.
If she had decided that the sentence should be carried out, she would have been the one to pull the chair out from under Bilal’s feet, making the execution a very personal matter for her. The Hosseinzadeh family did not take the money, but many other families have taken the blood money to relinquish the power of life and death over convicted killers.
Nothing like this exists in American jurisprudence. In the United States,courts have routinely heard families of victims make statements during the penalty phase of death sentence cases. The decision about whether to put a convicted killer to death, however, rests with the judge and the jurors in the case, who are rarely swayed by victim sentiments and, once a sentence has been handed down in an American court, only a court of higher authority, a governor,, or the president of the United States has the authority to commute death sentences.
Coming as it does in the wake of two botched executions by lethal injection in Ohio, the execution that did not happen in Iran on April 16th raises questions that are being asked about the American way of death, and whether the American approach is better – or worse – than the practices of other nations.
In the United States, there have been 1,359 executions since 1976, the year that the Death Penalty Information Center started collecting statistics. In 2013, 38 people were put to death in the US out of an official population of 316.2 million. (The actual population of the United States has been estimated at 350 million, including illegal immigrants; illegals are notorious adept at avoiding census takers.) The population of Iran is estimated at 78.3 million.
The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center reports on its website that 665 people were put to death in Iran in 2013, but 369 were spared. Out of a total of 1,035 prisoners condemned and sentenced to die in 2013, 35.6 percent had their sentences commuted through the generosity – or the avarice – of the families of their victims. Other sources give a variety of other figures (see below) so there is neither uniformity nor agreement on official executions.
Excluding China, which considers execution statistics a state secret, there were 778 executions worldwide in 2013, up from 682 in 2012, according to one source. Amnesty International, a usually credible source, puts the total executed at 704 in 2013, with 369 executions credited to Iran. Iranian sources put that number at 665, which suggests that the actual world-wide number of executions last year, excluding China, at around 1,004.
This week, however, Egypt has bolted into second place with the impending executions 720 members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptians seem adamant about carrying out those executions. If they are carried out, the death toll for 2014, already banner year for executions, will probably exceed 1700 departed worldwide.(Estimates of the number of Chinese citizens put to death each year runs into the thousands.)
In Iran, the practice of permitting, if not requiring, the bereaved to participate in the execution process has become a virtual mandate: the families of the deceased are expected to be present at executions, and to participate in them, because, if they are not present, they will not be in a position to stay the execution.
The clemency granted by the bereaved families is somewhat tainted, however. Under Iran’s version of Sharia Law, the families of the deceased are entitled to compensation of at least $35,000, making the decision to grant clemency both emotional and economic, but the blood money must be paid before and in lieu of the execution, if at all. In a philosophical sense, this makes the bereaved co-conspirators with the state in the execution process, since they have the power to abort an execution up to the very last second before the sentence is carried out.
Despite global misgivings about Iran’s government, the fact remains that it is one of the world’s oldest cultures and, despite the sheer number of executions carried out each year, even at the lower figure, there might be something to be said for the Iranian approach to execution.
Iran’s use of hanging to execute condemned prisoners might seem like primitive, cruel and unusual punishment, until one compares death by hanging with recent executions in the United States by lethal injection. Then, it does not seem so unreasonable.
Doctors, other health care professionals, hospice worker, and soldiers who have seen combat, all know from personal experience that the brain survives the death of the body by several minutes. Patients who have been brought back to life after “dying” on the operating table can recount everything that was said and done in the operating room while they were supposed to be “dead.”
Far from being New Age claptrap, this is real science. Once upon a time, death was defined as the moment the heart stops beating. Today, a better definition might be the moment the brain stops thinking.
After the heart stops, there is a six to seven minute “window of opportunity” during which the brain continues to utilize the oxygen in the blood that was in the brain when the heart stopped pumping. In this “twilight zone” between life and death the brain continues to receive impressions and react to them until the oxygen dissipates and consciousness fades out. After six or seven minutes, that oxygen is depleted, and hypoxia, brain death from oxygen starvation begins. After 15 minutes, irreversible brain damages begins to occur. After 30 minutes, it is usually impossible to bring the patient back to life.
Hanging, when done properly, severed the spinal column at the neck, crushes the larynx, and cuts off oxygen intake, causing death by asphyxiation, but only after the severed spinal column cuts off all bodily sensation signals to the brain. Despite its horrific appearance, hanging is much less painful than electrocution, which is just a modern form of immolation as in death by burning, firing squads, which are hit or miss, poison gas, which was declared illegal for use in war by the Geneva Convention but is still being offered as an option by three U.S. states, or “lethal injections,” which is a euphemism for poisoning .
All of these execution techniques leave the executed prisoner in a uniquely hellish experience of being conscious of the dissolution of their existence. Some, perhaps many, people would say good riddance to bad rubbish, but the way a culture executes its condemned prisoners says as much about the culture as it does about the condemned. Treating bad people well is the sign of a mature culture. It is not a sign of weakness.
Of all forms of execution, paradoxically, the most humane may in fact be the one that most people consider the most ghastly. Execution by beheading short circuits the brain by quickly draining the remaining blood from the brain pan, triggering cellular death from oxygen deprivation faster than any other form of execution. It is, however, hit or miss when done with a knife, sword, axe or garotte. That was why Dr.Joseph-Ignace Guillotin invented the machine that bears his name, to provide a humane, infallible and efficient means of executing prisoners….but even blood-thirsty Iran has no plans to bring back the Guillotine. Hanging, done properly, is the next best thing.
There is no way to put a price on a human life. Each one is priceless, but none is any more or less valuable than any other one. Nevertheless, exchanging blood money for clemency without exonerating the guilty from their crimes gives the condemned a second chance at life, and changes the paradigm from punishment to compensation.
Commentary By Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner