The death penalty: No room for error
Source: GlobalTimes, February 11 2010
Hewas a shy, medium-built welder who worked at a small hydraulicmachinery plant at the foot of Taihang Mountain, less than 300kilometers southwest of Beijing.
Farmfields surround his hometown of the city of Shijiazhuang in HebeiProvince.
InAugust 1994, a female worker at the machinery plant, 38-year-oldKang Juhua, was found dead in a cornfield. She had been raped andstrangled.
Ashort time later, Nie Shubin was arrested and charged with thecrime.
Shortly before the May 1 Labor Day holiday in 1995, NieXuesheng, went to the jailhouse to deliver clean clothes for hisson.
"Thepeople at the detention house told me that he had been executed aday earlier," the 64-year-old father now recalls.
"Wewere not even given a last chance to see his body," Nie added."Most people at the police station had left for the holiday. Wewere directed to collect the ashes of my son, and to this day weare not sure whether they are his."
Without notifying his family, the Hebei Provincial HighPeople's Court had found Nie Shubin guilty of murder. In March1995, he was sentenced to death.
Nie's execution might have closed the murder case were itnot for Wang Shujin, a wanted criminal from Hebei Province. In2004, he was captured in the neighboring province of Henan. Withoutany prior knowledge of Nie's death sentence, Wang admitted to sixcases of rape and murder, including the murder of Kang Juhua, inthe same cornfield where Nie Shubin had been accused of killing hernine years earlier.
Recent court actions suggest the possibility that Nie wasput 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 commutingcountless times between her village and Shijiazhuang, and eventraveling to Beijing, pleading for a judicial review of thelong-sealed verdict.
"Iwant them to take back the wrong accusation and return innocence tomy son," she said. "The case didn't have any witnesses or otherconfirmed evidence. They didn't collect any handprints, footprintsor conduct a DNA test. The blue bike my son was riding when he wasarrested was the on
"Myson was a stutterer," said the old man in broken sobs while seatedbeside his wife.
"Henever knew how to fight back even when bullied by otheryoungsters." The dead man's father was very angry and hit theconcrete floor with his walking stick.
Unable to accept the death of his son, Nie has twiceattempted to kill himself and remains partially paralyzed from on
Froma cupboard behind a square table in their living room, Zhangwithdrew a plastic file bag and pulled out a letter sent by theSupreme People's count, China's highest court, based in Beijing.Dated November 5, 2007, the letter asked the Hebei Provincial HighPeople's Court to review Nie's case.
Theofficial request to review the case comes nearly three years afterconvicted killer Wang Shujin confessed to the crime for which Niewas put to death.
"Obviously if Nie was still alive, we could find ways toredress the verdict and compensate for his lost years," said PekingUniversity law professor He Weifang, an advocate for abolishing thedeath penalty in China.
Asthe Chinese New Year draws near, villagers in Xianiezhuang villageare butchering sheep in preparation for the annual family feasts.But the courtyard of the Nie family looks deserted. In front oftheir on
Nie's execution was carried out on the eve of a large-scalecampaign to "strike hard at criminal activities," better known asthe "strike hard" campaign, often launched before a major nationalholiday in the name of maintaining social stability.
Thefirst "strike hard" campaign was in 1983, targeting a crime ratethat had risen as a result of the surging unemployment in the early1980s.
During such a campaign, local police departments areusually under pressure to meet arrest quotas handed down fromhigher authorities. In the 1980s and the early 1990s, capital caseswere sometimes streamlined. Criminal cases were investigated, movedthrough the court appeals process, and sentences were handed downat a much speedier rate than in normal times.
Tospeed up the rush to judgment, the Supreme People's Court inBeijing de-centralized its power to grant final approval of deathsentences. Provincial courts were then given the dual role ofhandling death sentence appeals and conducting the final review ofcapital cases.
"Nie's case is just the tip of the iceberg," said ProfessorHe while speaking in 2006 at a university in Yunnan Province. Thespeech has been widely circulated on the Internet. "Nobody knowshow many innocent lives had been lost because of this decision," Hesaid.
Amidmounting pressures from the public, the Supreme People's Court in2007 took back its authority to review each death sentence imposedby the lower courts.
Hebelieves that treating every capital case with caution does noteliminate the risk of a mistake that condemns an innocent person todeath. He called for an immediate, unconditional end to the deathsentence in China, calling it a "barbarous punishment."
"Capital punishment carried out by the government is evilagainst evil," he claimed, urging the public to consider the lossof human dignity of those facing execution.
As astaunch opponent of China's death penalty, He acknowledges that hisviews are not well received by the general public, where theconcept of justice as "a life for a life" has been deep-rooted forthousands of years.
Evenin the legal profession, most attorneys favor a gradual abolitionof the death penalty as the ultimate punishment.
"China should abolish the death penalty system, butconditions are not ready yet," said Zhang Sizhi, on
HeWeifang argues against the idea that a bullet in the head is adeterrent to crime, and that the crime rate will surge if the deathpenalty is abolished. Such worries, he says, spring completely frompeople's imagination.
"Tome, these concerns sound like excuses," he said.
Thedeath penalty has provoked heated debate around theworld.
Latelast year, Russia indefinitely extended a stay on executions thatwas scheduled to expire on January 1, 2010. Though opinion pollssuggest the majority of Russians favor the death penalty, thedecision by Russia's constitutional court is seen as a firm steptowards the goal of abolishing the ultimate penalty.
"Thediscussion in Russia has unfortunately generated little discussionin China," said He.
Every year, China executes more people than any othercountry in the world and the figures for executions remain asecret. However, there is a consensus that the number of executionshas steadily dropped off in recent years, according toHe.
Early last year, the Supreme People's Court issued newdirectives, urging lower courts to resort to civil meditation incapital cases.
In a2009 report, Chi Qiang, President of the Beijing High People'sCourt, announced that 18 convicted criminals were exempted fromdeath sentences last year as a result of civil meditation.Compensation settlements up to 5 million yuan have been paid by theaccused to victims' families, according to Beijing YouthDaily.
"However, not all death sentences can be meditated," saidTan Jingsheng, chief judge of the First Criminal Tribunal of theBeijing High People's Court. "Serious capital crimes, such asrobbery, kidnapping and murder, will not be reduced to less harshpenalties."