Changi Women’s Prison
5th July 2001
In all normal circumstances, twenty-four-year-old Scot, Catherine Miller, would have been scheduled to hang on Friday, 6th July. Hanging day at Singapore’s Changi Women’s Prison was always Friday. But the level of protest in Catherine’s case, and that of four other young female western backpackers, had reached such extremes that at the last minute and with no public announcement, the Singapore Government had brought forward the executions to six p.m., Thursday the 5th, in an attempt to wrong-foot the mass protest planned for dawn on the Friday.
Catherine had been on death row since the beginning of June after being found guilty of the capital offense of importing heroin into Singapore despite being unaware of having done so. In the time since her trial and sentence, she had lived through the sounds of the hanging procedure and the hours preceding it on four separate occasions.
Each time she had laid on her bunk in the darkness of her cell, awake for most of the night, the heavy silence broken by gentle whimpering or sobbing and occasional agonised cries. Few, if any, of the women slept after two or three in the morning, all waiting for the sound which heralded the start of the hanging ritual: a distant heavy prison door closing with an echoing metallic thud. A few seconds later they would hear the distant footfalls of the approaching execution party gradually become louder, then stop and wait for an electronically controlled door to allow access to death row. There would be a further short silence before the hum of four electric motors opened four cell doors; followed by the sound of muffled voices as the condemned women were told it was time. And it was always “women” plural. Such was the frequency of executions in Singapore, even of women, that the execution chamber was designed to hang four simultaneously, with an elongated drop plate and a line of four black nooses.
Familiarity with the procedure after four weeks did not make it any easier. Little could soften the horror of women being lead or dragged or carried away either screaming with terror, or crying out for mercy, or shouting defiant abuse, or quietly whimpering. Or even making no sound at all. In the chamber, the condemned women would have their wrists bound behind them, felt hoods placed over their heads, the nooses lowered electronically and adjusted to lie round the base of the neck. Then, when the prison clock struck the hour, the elongated drop plate would be released. There would be a resounding crash as the metal plate smashed into the walls of the concrete pit below. The echo would reverberate around the prison’s stone walls, then gradually fade as life faded from the four twitching and writhing bodies.
A factor which had helped in Catherine’s case was the deep catatonic depression she had descended into since the shock of her arrest and incarceration some three months earlier. It had served to dull her senses and effectively surround her with a protective mental cocoon. But on the next occasion it would be of little help. On the next occasion the execution party would stop at her door.
Two days earlier, in the British tradition, Catherine had been taken down to the chamber to be weighed and measured, and the wire supporting the noose had been electronically adjusted so that the noose could be pressed into the required position, fitting evenly around the base of her neck. Even then she had felt little reaction, just a shiver as the cold black oiled plastic rope touched her warm skin.
On Wednesday, 4th July, her lawyer Philip Lee had made an unexpected visit and her spirits had risen as she knew every effort was still being made to stop her execution, but the look on Lee’s face had been enough. He had not come to tell her there was going to be a last minute pardon or granting of clemency or commuting of the sentence. On the contrary, he had to tell her that the time of the execution was being brought forward by twelve hours to six p.m. on Thursday, 5th July.
Philip had said something else about two other backpackers being hanged with her, but she didn’t really take it in. All that mattered to her was that she was to have twelve hours less for the efforts of Lee and the others to stop or delay her execution.
5th July 2001, 5:00 p.m.
Lee visited her at five p.m. to say that all efforts had failed and that the execution was to proceed.
5th July 2001, 5:40 p.m.
As the minute hand edged past the half hour and started moving upwards, Catherine’s protective mental cocoon started to fade. At 5:40 p.m. the dreaded heavy metallic thud of the closing distant door sent a shudder of fear through her emaciated frame. Some fifteen seconds later she heard the approaching footfalls, this time the full execution party. The footfalls stopped and there was a short silence; then a click, and the door of her cell slowly opened. Philip Lee and a priest entered. Behind them she was vaguely aware of various people, some in suits, the government lawyers and prison officials, the others in light brown military style uniform, the prison guards. Philip Lee’s eyes were moist as he told her it was time to go. As a defence lawyer, he had attended many such executions and normally remained outwardly unmoved, but he had come to like Catherine Miller; he knew she was innocent in the sense of having had no intent or knowledge of the crime of which she had been found guilty, and it had taken its toll on even his emotional resilience.
A priest stepped forward and intoned some kind of blessing, closing with the words, “may the Lord have mercy on your soul.” Catherine managed to question to herself the logic of such a request when she had not committed the crime for which she was about to lose her life. When the priest had finished, he backed away, leaving Catherine to the mercy of two guards who turned her round, pulled her arms behind her and handcuffed her wrists. A fifth man entered whom she remembered from the previous day organizing the fitting of the noose and weighing her. She felt the first faint twinge of fear as she recognized him as the executioner. It was he who led her from her cell.
She walked a little unsteadily, but did not need assistance beyond the executioner’s gentle hold of her elbow. She made no sound. She thought she could hear other people behind her.
The double air-locked doors into the execution chamber opened, and as she entered she drew back from the intense bright, white light of the chamber itself. The sight of the four suspended black nooses finally removed the remaining shreds of her protective depressive blanket; her legs felt weak and unsteady and a wave of nausea enveloped her.
She was manoeuvred into position under a noose at the left hand end of the drop plate, and she heard the quiet whirr of the electric motor as the final fine adjustments were made. She started to struggle, tears rolled down her face. The executioner gently but firmly restrained her, then stood looking into her eyes and lowered the black felt hood over her head. She tried to scream, but nothing happened. The noose was lowered into position, and she felt the executioner’s fingers gently press it into position.
She thought she heard a door open and more people enter. She was sure there was movement on the drop plate, she could feel the vibration. Then she remembered Lee saying something about two or three others being executed at the same time. She thought she heard crying, but such awareness as she was capable of was mostly concentrated on her own predicament.
In any event, any other sounds were largely drowned by the heavy felt hood.
There was perfect quietness as the executioner waited for the prison clock to chime at 6:00 p.m. Catherine was close to vomiting and was conscious of wetness running down her legs.
Seconds later, there was a violent crash.
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” … a good read where the story contains tension and twists to keep the reader guessing and engaged.”
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