Since 1983, the average amount of time a condemned American convict spends on death row has tripled to 153 months. Yet that mammoth stretch of time is nothing compared to that endured by Sadamichi Hirasawa. When he passed away from natural causes in 1987, the alleged mastermind of Japan’s most infamous and lethal bank robbery had racked up 37 years waiting for the noose.
The eternal delay had much to do with the circumstances surrounding Hirasawa’s conviction. The facts of the crime were never in doubt: in 1948, a man conned a dozen bank employees into drinking cyanide, under the pretense that he was administering them a liquid vaccination for dysentery. But since the start, there have been credible rumors that Hirasawa was just a scapegoat, and that the real culprit was someone with close ties to Unit 731, the clandestine group that carried out horrific biowarfare experiments during World War II. This alternative theory goes something like this:
As the investigation progressed, the evidence began to implicate a former member of Unit 731 of the Imperial Army—the unit which, under the command of Lt. Gen. Shiro Ishii, conducted biological warfare research in Manchuria by means of grisly experimentation on captured prisoners. The poison in teh bank robbery was administered, it was learned, by a method used regularly in Manchuria. One survivor was certain the murderer was a doctor. General Ishii himself was called in to “consult” on the case.
Suddenly, however, this line of investigation was terminated, apparently at the behest of someone high in MacArthur’s command. With the Japanese public clamoring for action, the police turned their attention again to Hirasawa, who was convicted and sentenced to death.
MacArthur supposedly had a keen interest in granting amnesty to Unit 731’s members, so that their expertise could be tapped in the service of America’s burgeoning bioweapons program. To this day, that is a narrative that Hirasawa’s descendants continue to try and bring to light.