In Death Note, a serial killer named Kira is killing the world's criminals. All he needs is a name and a face. It's not too long before countries realize someone is targeting criminals and hire a detective L to find him.

Early in the story L has a news conference in Japan. His full name is "Lind L. Tailor" and he vows to track down Kira. Kira is watching the broadcast, and uses his power to kill Lind L. Tailor while he is live on TV. The real L takes over the broadcast and explains that Lind L. Taylor was a death row inmate that was going to be executed today, and Kira didn't kill the real L.

if you did indeed kill Lind L tailor the man you just saw die on television I should tell you that he was an inmate whose execution was scheduled for today that was not me. The police arrested him in absolute secrecy so you wouldn't have heard about him on TV or through the internet.

Would this be legal for L to use prisoners to prove his theories about Kira? The story is set in Japan, but would this be illegal in the U.S.A.?

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    Another aspect that makes this unrealistic is that while police may have arrested Tailor in secrecy, that is not enough for a death penalty. A jury of his peers needed to indict him, and that verdict would have to be public. Jun 14, 2021 at 13:39
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    Note to self: write a question on Physics SE complaining about unrealistic moments in "Lord of the Rings". Jun 14, 2021 at 14:41
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    IIRC Lind L. Tailor agreed to the charade because he wouldn't be executed if he survived Kira. It was a deal, not an order - that might change the answer a bit.
    – Izkata
    Jun 14, 2021 at 15:24
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    "The police arrested him in absolute secrecy so you wouldn't have heard about him on TV or through the internet." That's... silly. It's so far beyond silly that it's Bad Writing.
    – RonJohn
    Jun 14, 2021 at 15:50
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4 Answers 4


would this be illegal in the U.S.A.?

This would almost certainly fail under the US Constitutions 8th Amendment as being a "cruel and unusual punishment":

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted

While the inmate has been sentenced to execution, they are still afforded a lot of protection and are entitled to a stay of execution at any point (which is why there is typically an open telephone line to the state governor etc right up to the point at which the execution starts).

Being deliberately put in harms way to catch a killer just because they have been sentenced to execution would be both a cruel and an unusual punishment.

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    How come it is even "punishment", not simply murder? A punishment is supposed be conducted pursuant to procedures established by law. What we have here is nowhere near that.
    – Greendrake
    Jun 14, 2021 at 6:26
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    How come the 8th Amendment is the first/foremost thing to stop the Governor from signing such a bill, not the very basic/ubiquitous prohibition to murder people?
    – Greendrake
    Jun 14, 2021 at 6:39
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    @Greendrake we are talking about someone on death row, the whole “Governor cant make state murder legal” thing is well past. The only reason execution isnt classed as cruel or unusual at this point is because its been on the books for hundreds of years....
    – user28517
    Jun 14, 2021 at 7:16
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    Would there not be legal precedent for giving the prisoner a choice? Like "do this thing that might result in your death and we'll commute your sentence if you survive OR you can just be executed as scheduled"? Jun 14, 2021 at 14:28
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    Notably the President of the US has sweeping emergency powers, as does the President of Japan. That would certainly include having someone killed if there was a genuine need.
    – Richard
    Jun 14, 2021 at 19:36

In the United States, execution methods must be authorized by law. The currently permitted execution methods vary from state to state. According to the death penalty information center, the methods approved in at least one state are:

  • Lethal injection
  • Electrocution
  • Lethal Gas
  • Hanging
  • Firing squad

Notably absent from this list of execution methods is "Death Note".

So before this plan could be put into practice, the house of at least one state would have to make a law which permits this execution method. And considering that the death penalty and the way it's applied is a very controversial topic, it would be very difficult to do this without creating any media attention.

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    Death by death note in this question is not a punishment, it's being carried out by a serial killer, not the state. The prisoner was offered something in exchange for being bait, his death wasn't the goal.
    – Ryan_L
    Jun 14, 2021 at 16:18
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    The legality of executing someone via Death Note seems entirely irrelevant to the question. The death row inmate is just being used as bait, and the state performs no execution at all. It's clear that the private individual writing the Death Note is committing murder, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the state can legally do the same thing. An executioner can legally electrocute a death row inmate, but a private citizen cannot. "Death Note" being a legal execution method doesn't mean that the state can just have you murdered in that manner by a random person. Jun 15, 2021 at 18:14
  • I always assumed an executioner preformed their duties 'By the power vested in them by the State'. Surely there's some law that indemnifies them from homicide charges? The methods must be authorized by law, and presumably the person carrying out those methods must also be authorized by law.
    – Mazura
    Jun 16, 2021 at 21:24
  • @NuclearHoagie Wouldn't the state be committing a crime if it executed its own citizens willy nilly outside of the narrow margins it defined for itself by law? Jun 17, 2021 at 9:29
  • @AmiralPatate The state isn't executing anyone at all, so whether or not that would be a crime has no bearing on the question. Permitting the state to execute someone by firing squad, for example, doesn't mean that it's permissible for the state to parade the prisoner around in front of a crowd with the express goal that someone else will shoot him. Jun 17, 2021 at 15:38

Would this be legal for L to use prisoners to prove his theories about Kira?

No (unless the prison gave informed consent to this risk, perhaps in exchange for some favor for his family).

But, suppose that the next of kin of the prisoners sued the Japanese government for wrongfully endangering the decedent who was killed by Death Note. (As it happens, death by Death Note is not itself in this instance any more painful than death by a valid means of execution in Japan. Indeed, it might even involve less suffering and less dishonor for the prisoner.) The appropriate amount of damages for the wrongful death of a murderer with just hours left to live would probably be lower than the appropriate amount of damages for anyone else. They might even be merely nominal damages (e.g. 100 Yen).

It is probably also a crime (e.g. reckless endangerment of someone in the custody of the state), but the prosecutor and law enforcement are likely to look the other way and decline to enforce the criminal law in this situation.

Of course, any legal liability, civil or criminal, requires the court to determine that a reasonable person would believe that Death Note deaths were possible at all, and that this death was actually caused by the involvement of the prisoner in the scheme and was not merely a coincidence. In real life, those would be insurmountable barriers to civil and criminal liability, but this is, by assumption, not a real life situation. The cause that would be revealed by an autopsy, if I recall correctly, would be heart attack or some similar natural cause, in this particular instance.

While not strictly relevant, it is also helpful to know that in Japan (one of the relatively few developed countries that retains the death penalty), unlike most other death penalty jurisdictions, inmates on death row do not have a right to advanced notice of their execution date, and generally do not know what the date will be (sometimes days in the future, sometimes years) until a matter of hours before they are executed. This is a feature of the Japanese death penalty that human rights activists have criticized.

The story is set in Japan, but would this be illegal in the U.S.A.?

Essentially the same analysis applies, although the exact legal authorities cited in support of this conclusion would be different.

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    I feel like this should be higher. Criminals are routinely asked to inform on other criminals, which is a dangerous action. I believe criminals are occasionally used in sting operations, which is very dangerous.
    – yesennes
    Jun 16, 2021 at 15:45
  • @ohwilleke how do you know so much, I can’t believe it.
    – kisspuska
    Jun 17, 2021 at 17:33
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    @kisspuska Lots of reading, comparative law classes in law school, and watching Death Note (of course).
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 17, 2021 at 19:19
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    @ohwilleke yeah, sounds like it! (Should also probably check out that show, too!)
    – kisspuska
    Jun 17, 2021 at 20:14

Well, could a normal person consent to be a decoy?

Put it this way. If they had walked up to any random person on the street and said "You have the right appearance for us to use as a decoy for a famous person. As implied by the word "decoy", there is danger involved".

That random person would certainly have every right to agree to the arrangement. In fact, they do so everyday. We can say this with confidence, and lay it down as a foundation.

So the question remaining on the table is whether a death row inmate could consent to this. From the inmate's perspective, I don't know of anything in law that would cause their conviction to strip them of the right to agree to such an arrangement.

And they might find it a great deal more enjoyable as opposed to the usual lethal injection, especially if there are incentives such as clemency if they survive. So the probability of finding an agreeable death row inmate is high.

Could the corrections system let the inmate do that job?

From the legal system's perspective, the question would be whether it was legal to permit the death row inmate to take that job. For the system, the legal risk is that the whole deal goes sideways and the inmate uses the opportunity to escape: tearing through the countryside on a crime spree.

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    You don't think that a person in the custody of the state with the sentence of execution hanging over them might not be in a position where it's impossible, legally, to give informed and willing consent? I'm no lawyer, nor do I have any idea how this might shake out were it to come to some sort of court, but it seems possible that a prisoner has diminished capability of giving consent.
    – nitsua60
    Jun 16, 2021 at 23:02
  • @nitsua60 Of course it could easily happen. I just don't think that use-case merits discussion given the ease of obtaining bona fide volunteers with a little incentive. An offer no reasonable person would refuse is not the same as degrading capacity to consent. If a death row inmate did have diminished capability of giving consent, that would raise huge issues about killing them at all! Jun 16, 2021 at 23:38

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