Views & Reviews Personal View

I certified deaths after judicial executions—and I believe capital punishment should be abolished

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 14 May 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g3312
  1. Anton E Joseph, retired consultant radiologist, St George’s Hospital, London SW17 0QT, and Croydon University Hospital, Croydon CR7 7YE
  1. aeajoseph{at}

Working in forensic medicine in Sri Lanka included gruesome duties for Anton E Joseph

Many people have raised justifiable concerns about the use of inappropriate drugs to try to achieve a humane way of carrying out capital punishment, as well as about botched executions.1 2 3 Society seems undecided about the legal justification to take away human life as a punishment. My opinion is that death sentences are legalised murder. I would rather not enter into this controversy, but I do wish to share my unusual professional experience of capital punishment.

When I was employed as a lecturer in forensic medicine in Sri Lanka in the 1960s, my duties included being present at executions by hanging, declaring death before the body was taken down, and performing an autopsy (don’t ask me why)—which I limited to a dissection of the neck to assess damage to the spinal cord and vertebrae. The bodies were not released to relatives but were given state burials in unmarked graves.

At the four executions I witnessed, three …

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