The death penalty: No room for error
Source: Global Times, February 11 2010
By Xu Donghuan
Twenty-one-year-old Nie Shubin was not known as a troublemaker.
He was a shy, medium-built welder who worked at a small hydraulic machinery plant at the foot of Taihang Mountain, less than 300 kilometers southwest of Beijing.
Farm fields surround his hometown of the city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province.
In August 1994, a female worker at the machinery plant, 38-year-old Kang Juhua, was found dead in a cornfield. She had been raped and strangled.
A short time later, Nie Shubin was arrested and charged with the crime.
Shortly before the May 1 Labor Day holiday in 1995, Nie Xuesheng, went to the jailhouse to deliver clean clothes for his son.
"The people at the detention house told me that he had been executed a day earlier," the 64-year-old father now recalls.
"We were not even given a last chance to see his body," Nie added. "Most people at the police station had left for the holiday. We were directed to collect the ashes of my son, and to this day we are not sure whether they are his."
Without notifying his family, the Hebei Provincial High People's Court had found Nie Shubin guilty of murder. In March 1995, he was sentenced to death.
Nie's execution might have closed the murder case were it not for Wang Shujin, a wanted criminal from Hebei Province. In 2004, he was captured in the neighboring province of Henan. Without any prior knowledge of Nie's death sentence, Wang admitted to six cases of rape and murder, including the murder of Kang Juhua, in the same cornfield where Nie Shubin had been accused of killing her nine years earlier.
Recent court actions suggest the possibility that Nie was put to death for a crime he did not commit.
Convinced that her son was innocent, Nie's mother, 65-year-old Zhang Huanzhi, has spent the past 14 years commuting countless times between her village and Shijiazhuang, and even traveling to Beijing, pleading for a judicial review of the long-sealed verdict.
"I want them to take back the wrong accusation and return innocence to my son," she said. "The case didn't have any witnesses or other confirmed evidence. They didn't collect any handprints, footprints or conduct a DNA test. The blue bike my son was riding when he was arrested was the only thing that matched their investigation."
"My son was a stutterer," said the old man in broken sobs while seated beside his wife.
"He never knew how to fight back even when bullied by other youngsters." The dead man's father was very angry and hit the concrete floor with his walking stick.
Unable to accept the death of his son, Nie has twice attempted to kill himself and remains partially paralyzed from one of his suicide attempts.
From a cupboard behind a square table in their living room, Zhang withdrew a plastic file bag and pulled out a letter sent by the Supreme People's count, China's highest court, based in Beijing. Dated November 5, 2007, the letter asked the Hebei Provincial High People's Court to review Nie's case.
The official request to review the case comes nearly three years after convicted killer Wang Shujin confessed to the crime for which Nie was put to death.
"Obviously if Nie was still alive, we could find ways to redress the verdict and compensate for his lost years," said Peking University law professor He Weifang, an advocate for abolishing the death penalty in China.
As the Chinese New Year draws near, villagers in Xianiezhuang village are butchering sheep in preparation for the annual family feasts. But the courtyard of the Nie family looks deserted. In front of their one-story brick house, a dog tied to a tree barked once in a while. The side room, Nie Shubin's former bedroom, has long been used to store grain. There are no grandchildren running to and fro and hardly any festive atmosphere.
"Once every month, I travel to Shijiazhuang, to ask about the progress of the review," said Zhang, wiping her eyes with a filthy-looking handkerchief.
Rush to judgement
Nie's execution was carried out on the eve of a large-scale campaign to "strike hard at criminal activities," better known as the "strike hard" campaign, often launched before a major national holiday in the name of maintaining social stability.
The first "strike hard" campaign was in 1983, targeting a crime rate that had risen as a result of the surging unemployment in the early 1980s.
During such a campaign, local police departments are usually under pressure to meet arrest quotas handed down from higher authorities. In the 1980s and the early 1990s, capital cases were sometimes streamlined. Criminal cases were investigated, moved through the court appeals process, and sentences were handed down at a much speedier rate than in normal times.
To speed up the rush to judgment, the Supreme People's Court in Beijing de-centralized its power to grant final approval of death sentences. Provincial courts were then given the dual role of handling death sentence appeals and conducting the final review of capital cases.
"Nie's case is just the tip of the iceberg," said Professor He while speaking in 2006 at a university in Yunnan Province. The speech has been widely circulated on the Internet. "Nobody knows how many innocent lives had been lost because of this decision," He said.
Amid mounting pressures from the public, the Supreme People's Court in 2007 took back its authority to review each death sentence imposed by the lower courts.
He believes that treating every capital case with caution does not eliminate the risk of a mistake that condemns an innocent person to death. He called for an immediate, unconditional end to the death sentence in China, calling it a "barbarous punishment."
"Capital punishment carried out by the government is evil against evil," he claimed, urging the public to consider the loss of human dignity of those facing execution.
As a staunch opponent of China's death penalty, He acknowledges that his views are not well received by the general public, where the concept of justice as "a life for a life" has been deep-rooted for thousands of years.
Even in the legal profession, most attorneys favor a gradual abolition of the death penalty as the ultimate punishment.
"China should abolish the death penalty system, but conditions are not ready yet," said Zhang Sizhi, one of China's most prominent lawyers, who is also representing Nie's parent's family in their quest to restore their dead son's name.
He Weifang argues against the idea that a bullet in the head is a deterrent to crime, and that the crime rate will surge if the death penalty is abolished. Such worries, he says, spring completely from people's imagination.
"To me, these concerns sound like excuses," he said.
The death penalty has provoked heated debate around the world.
Late last year, Russia indefinitely extended a stay on executions that was scheduled to expire on January 1, 2010. Though opinion polls suggest the majority of Russians favor the death penalty, the decision by Russia's constitutional court is seen as a firm step towards the goal of abolishing the ultimate penalty.
"The discussion in Russia has unfortunately generated little discussion in China," said He.
Every year, China executes more people than any other country in the world and the figures for executions remain a secret. However, there is a consensus that the number of executions has steadily dropped off in recent years, according to He.
Early last year, the Supreme People's Court issued new directives, urging lower courts to resort to civil meditation in capital cases.
In a 2009 report, Chi Qiang, President of the Beijing High People's Court, announced that 18 convicted criminals were exempted from death sentences last year as a result of civil meditation. Compensation settlements up to 5 million yuan have been paid by the accused to victims' families, according to Beijing Youth Daily.
"However, not all death sentences can be meditated," said Tan Jingsheng, chief judge of the First Criminal Tribunal of the Beijing High People's Court. "Serious capital crimes, such as robbery, kidnapping and murder, will not be reduced to less harsh penalties."