In the days preceding the hanging of convicted child killer Westley Allan Dodd, death penalty opponents warned of the cruelty of the hangman's noose.
If the knotted rope did not slam against the soft spot behind Dodd's ear and render him unconscious, he could be fully awake for his own neck breaking, paralysis and asphyxiation, they warned. And if the rope yanked too hard, it could decapitate him.
But when Dodd's body dropped through the trapdoor of the gallows at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla, Wash., at 12:05 a.m. yesterday, nothing like that happened. He did not twitch; he did not writhe, witnesses said. Dodd just dangled, his head hooded, his hands slightly crossed in front of his groin. Death was pronounced at 12:09 a.m.
John K. Wiley, an Associated Press writer and witness to the hanging, described the scene as "surreal," but far less gruesome than he had expected. But when he got back to his hotel room, he threw up.
Dodd's was the nation's first hanging since 1965 and the first execution of any kind in Washington state since 1963. It has renewed debate about which method -- hanging, gassing, electrocution or lethal injection -- constitutes the least painful form of death, and whether convicted murderers should be killed for their deeds at all.
Citing hangmen's accounts of the pre-death agony that occurs when a hanging goes wrong, noose opponents argued that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Several interviewed yesterday said they hoped the execution would drive home the point that executions of any kind are inhumane.
"The ACLU's position, of course, is opposition to all capital punishment, but certainly hanging is a graphic display of the barbarity of state executions," said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which filed a suit that was unsuccessful in blocking Dodd's execution
If the ACLU and others oppose hanging because it does not bring instantaneous death, then "they ought to be in favor of the guillotine," said death penalty supporter Walter Berns, a Georgetown University government professor and author of the 1979 book, "For Capital Punishment."
Berns, who favors less painful forms of execution than hanging, said groups that have opposed the Dodd hanging "will make any argument against the death penalty that they can use."
Dodd, 31, wanted to hang. He said it was only fitting since he had hanged in a closet the body of one of his three child victims. He molested and killed the three boys in the Vancouver, Wash., area in 1989 and pleaded guilty the following year.
Of 38 states that have death penalty statutes, Washington is one of only four states where hanging remains an execution option, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Capital Punishment Project. The others are Delaware, New Hampshire and Wyoming.
Lethal injections have been the preferred form of execution in the majority of states since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center here, said he expects Dodd's to be the last hanging in the United States because the trend away from the noose has been so clear over the past several years and the outrage over the Dodd case so profound.
Like the case of Robert Alton Harris, whose gas chamber death last April became the first in California execution in 25 years, Dodd's case attracted broad attention and sparked deep passions.
On the one hand was the brutality of Dodd's crimes and his warning that he would molest and kill again if he had the chance. At the same time, the return of the hangman's noose in a society that has evolved to more sophisticated and less painful forms of execution struck civil libertarians as especially cruel.
A group of citizens, including two retired judges and four state legislators, joined the ACLU in its attempt to stop the Dodd hanging by calling it unconstitutional. The Washington State Supreme Court did not agree, and let the hanging go forward.
Relatives of the dead children were among the witnesses allowed to hear Dodd's final words, in which he told of finding Jesus and peace, and watch his death. Outside, scores of people who either favored or opposed the hanging gathered for a vigil, including Leigh Dingerson, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"I think one of the most telling things about this execution and the few we've had over the last decade is that Mr. Dodd is something of an evil celebrity," said Dingerson. "And because he has become so infamous in this state, the memory of the victims has faded already. No one will remember his victims a year from now. Everyone will remember Mr. Dodd. And that's not what we intend of the death penalty, I hope."
A breakdown, by state, of executions carried out since the 1976 Supreme Court ruling allowed states to resume use of the death penalty. In all, 188 men and one woman have been executed in the United States in that time.
Texas .......... 54
Florida ........ 29
Louisiana ...... 20
Virginia ....... 17
Georgia ........ 15
Alabama ........ 10
Missouri ........ 7
Nevada .......... 5
North Carolina .. 5
Mississippi ..... 4
South Carolina .. 4
Arkansas ........ 4
Utah ............ 4
Oklahoma ........ 3
Indiana ......... 2
Illinois ........ 1
Wyoming ......... 1
Delaware ........ 1
Arizona ......... 1
California ...... 1
Washington ...... 1
SOURCE: Associated Press