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Wrongful Conviction Cases Expose Serious Defects in China’s Legal System

Ten years ago, twenty-year-old Nie Shubin was a shy, stuttering, and well-behaved young factory worker. None of the villagers believed that Nie could have committed the murder and rape police had charged him with. Ten years later, the arrest of another man revealed the true murderer, but it was too late for Nie and his family.

On August 10, 1994, a farmer named Kang reported to the Public Security Bureau branch office in the western suburb of Shijiazhuang that his daughter had been missing since August 5. On September 23, Nie Shubin was arrested as the suspect in the “August 5” rape and murder case. A week later, Nie admitted to all counts of the rape and murder of Ms. Kang, and the Shijiazhuang Intermediate Court gave Nie the death sentence. In a second trial, the High Court of Hebei Province sentenced him to 15 years for rape but kept the death sentence for the murder charge. Nie was executed on April 27, 1995.

On January 18, 2005, a man named Wang Shujing was arrested in Yingyang, in Henan Province. Wang confessed to four instances of rape and murder in Hebei Province in the past ten years, including the rape and murder of Ms. Kang in August 1994. When Henan News reported the story, the nation was in an uproar.

Nie’s family never believed that Nie had committed the crime. According to Nie’s mother, Zhang Huanzhi, her son’s lawyer said that Nie had confessed because he could not endure the interrogation methods used by the police. The Shijiazhuang Daily, a local newspaper, carried an article on October 26, 1994, that was written by one of the policemen who had interrogated Nie. The policeman wrote, “It took a week of pressure and skillful use of psychological attack tactics to make Nie admit to the rape and murder of a young woman.”

In March 1995, after the court hearing, Zhang demanded to see and talk with her son, but was only allowed a brief meeting. Zhang told a reporter that her son had something to say but that he had stuttered so badly that he couldn’t say anything. That was the last time Nie’s family saw him. The family never received any information, nor did the lawyer tell them anything about when Nie was sentenced and when he was executed. A judge from the Shijiazhuang Intermediate Court indicated that the court is only required to serve such papers to the plaintiffs themselves.

Public exposure of Nie’s case caused quite a stir, and thousands of messages flooded the Internet. However, the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of Chinese Communist Party quickly issued an order on March 21, 2005, forbidding any more news and postings on the Internet regarding Nie Shubin.

Fifteen days after Mr. Nie’s story made the news, another case of wrongful conviction for murder surfaced. Beijing News reported that a woman presumed dead and allegedly murdered by her husband Mr. She (surname) Xianglin had reappeared. The woman, Zhang Zaiyu, had gone missing in 1994. At around the same time, police found an unidentified female body in a reservoir near Mr. She’s residence. With no DNA test or other evidence, local police believed that the body was Zhang’s and that Mr. She was the suspect. After several rounds of interrogation, Mr. She confessed. The people’s Court of Jingshan County and the Intermediate People’s Court of Jingzhou Prefecture in Hubei Province both sentenced Mr. She to death by immediate execution at the first and the second trials. Fortunately, the High People’s Court of Hubei ordered a retrial that ended with a sentence of 15 years imprisonment.

On April 13, 2005, 11 years after his imprisonment, She Xianglin, now 39 years old, was released following the reappearance of his allegedly deceased wife. His only compensation for the wrongful imprisonment was about 26,600 yuan (US$3,205). Mr. She revealed to the reporter that he was beaten for ten consecutive days and nights. “They tortured me by not letting me sleep for ten days and finally made me leave my finger print on the document when I had almost lost consciousness.”

Mr. She’s mother started the appeals process for her son. She was jailed for nine months due to her repeated appeals and died three months after being released at the age of 54. Mr. She’s daughter, She Huarong, had to quit school at the age of 14 because the family had used up all the savings to appeal.

Tragedy has changed the fate of each family. These cases have cast a spotlight on the common police practice of using torture and beatings to extract confessions, and the lack of effective appeal procedures.

When Premier Wen Jiabao met the press at the Third session of the Tenth National People’s Congress held at the Great Hall of the People on March 14, 2005, he replied to a question regarding whether China will abolish the death penalty: “Given our country’s reality, we will not abolish the death penalty yet. Half of the countries in the world still have the death penalty. However, we will institute an effective system to ensure prudence and justice in applying the death sentence…”

Ironically, Mr. Nie and Mr. She’s cases came to light right after Wen’s speech. The state-run media Xinhua immediately published a statement by China’s top law enforcement organs, such as the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and the Ministry of Public Security, that they are taking actions to reform the judicial system.

Assessing the impact of any reforms will be difficult because Beijing treats the number of people executed each year as a state secret. Amnesty International says it counted 200 reported executions in two weeks before Chinese New Year in early February and cites suggestions by a senior Chinese legislator that the true annual toll could be close to 10,000.

People are waiting to see whether the expected reform will have the same impact as that prompted by the Sun Zhigang case two years ago. In April 2003, a “Sun Zhigang beating case” caused dismissal of China’s holding measures system.

The Southern Metropolis News had reported that Sun Zhigang, a university graduate from Wuhan, was beaten to death in Guangzhou by eight inmates at a penitentiary hospital, with the collusion of the police, just hours after being arrested as a vagrant for not carrying an ID. The wide exposure of Sun’s case triggered a major debate on the validity of the detention system and the two-decades-old Measures for Internment and Deportation of Urban Vagrants and Beggars. The measures require urban vagrants and beggars to be detained and then deported to their hometowns and urge local governments to make proper arrangements for them. Under heavy media exposure and public pressure, the system was later abolished at a conference of the State Council chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao.

Public outrage over the injustices experienced by Mr. She is similar to that of the Sun Zhigang case. The public is demanding reform in the legal system to minimize conviction of the innocent. Initial indications suggest that major reform does not have enough support. Without the media’s cooperation, the case will eventually die. Moreover, it’s not to the government’s liking to foster such changes. After Sun Zhigang’s case was over, Cheng Yizhong, Chief Editor of the Southern Metropolis News, paid the price for being the first to report the case. He was arrested and imprisoned for five months, along with the secret arrest of over a dozen other reporters.

Already, media coverage of Mr. Nie’s case has been squelched. The single follow-up report has reversed earlier reports. On April 20, 2005, Guangzhou Daily reported that Nie Shubin’s case may not be overturned and that, based on investigation by the Hebei Public Security, Wang Shujing’s confession statement was a lie. Nie’s family isn’t convinced. They believe that Nie is innocent and will appeal to the High People’s Court.

Lukun Yu is a financial analyst based in New York.