Thursday, February 19, 2015

Court Flaunting of Nian Bin Acquittal Raises Questions of Lessons Learned

Nian Bin reunites with his sister, who built his legal defense team, and uncle after being released from prison in 2014. Image credit: You Jingyou, Weibo

Last August, the Fujian High People’s Court acquitted Nian Bin, a former grocery-store owner sentenced to death in 2008 for allegedly poisoning his neighbors in 2006. The incident led to the deaths of two children. Nian claimed that he confessed to the crime only under the duress of police torture. After more than six years of trial and appeal, Nian’s lawyers were able to prove that police had fabricated evidence against him and withheld other evidence that showed his innocence.

Nian’s case, which has long been in the public spotlight and a focus of anti-death-penalty activists in China, has been hailed as a landmark victory after a long and hard-fought struggle by Nian’s family and lawyers. Some credit for this victory must also go to legal reforms that have changed the environment in which death penalty cases are handled in China. The careful review of the death penalty by the Supreme People’s Court is one factor, as is the increased emphasis that has been placed on the exclusion of confessions extracted through torture or other illegal evidence.

The outcome of Nian Bin’s case may also reflect the attention that Chinese leaders have paid in recent years to the serious problem of wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice. Because addressing individual cases of injustice is increasingly both a legal and political problem for Chinese courts, it is not surprising that the Fujian High People’s Court chose to make mention of the “positive” impact of the successful resolution of the Nian Bin case in its annual work report to provincial people’s congress deputies. After all, under China’s political system, approval of state institutions’ work by legislative bodies is supposed to serve as an important affirmation of the correctness and legitimacy of that work.

But to commentator Zhu Changjun, writing in the February 2 edition of The Beijing News, the Fujian court’s attempt to take credit for overturning Nian Bin’s conviction inadequately addresses either the factors that contributed to Nian’s wrongful conviction in the first place or the provincial court’s failure to acquit Nian earlier despite identifying serious problems with the prosecution’s case.

Zhu’s concern highlights a general problem faced in trying to evaluate achievement in reform of China’s legal system and human-rights protections. On the one hand, there is a tendency to exaggerate the progressive impact of new policies or legislation before there is concrete evidence that institutions and practices have truly changed for the better. On the other hand, it can often be difficult to say how indicative positive outcomes in individual cases are of systemic change.

This is perhaps a particular problem when the progress in question is so closely linked to the undoing of past mistakes, rather than simply improving upon existing policies and practices. In these cases, as Zhu Changjun suggests, Chinese authorities might earn more credit for their efforts if they were to show with greater transparency how the lessons learned from past miscarriages of justice are being put to use in the reform process.

How Should the Impact of the Nian Bin Case be Recorded?

Zhu Changjun
The Beijing News, February 2, 2015

Overturning the verdict in the Nian Bin case merely reflects the ordinary operation of the judicial system’s mechanisms to correct errors. Correcting these errors is a basic responsibility of a reasonable judicial system. It’s really inappropriate for local high courts to one-sidedly prettify this sort of action in a work report.

According to recent reports citing a number of deputies to the Fujian Provincial People’s Congress, the Nian Bin case, which received a lot of attention in 2014, was mentioned in the work report of the Fujian High People’s Court. In that report, court president Ma Xinlan commented that the court’s “resolution of a number of cases in accordance with the law, including the case against Pingtan resident Nian Bin on charges of poisoning with a hazardous substance, caused a positive impact both legally and socially.”

Nian Bin’s case was a classic example of a miscarriage of justice and received national attention. As such, reversal of the verdict against Nian Bin is of course worth including in the annual work report of the local judicial authorities. But what is the most appropriate way of discussing it? Should it be a full accounting of the lessons learned from how this miscarriage of justice came to pass or simply a comment on the significance of how mistake were ultimately rectified? The answer should be self-evident. The way that judicial authorities have, at least at the current stage, chosen to focus on the “positive impact both legally and socially” of their “resolution of the case in accordance with the law,” deserves further scrutiny and discussion.

One can of course understand the Fujian High People’s Court’s mention of the positive social value of overturning Nian’s wrongful conviction. After all, Nian Bin’s case was finally overturned after eight years of 10 verdicts—four of those carrying a sentence of immediate execution, but this is not simply about restoring justice to a single individual. It allows people to hope for the rectification of even more wrongful convictions, a kind of judicial multiplier effect. To be sure, this has a positive social and legal impact. But it’s rather biased for an annual work report to only reveal and magnify the positive side and fail to reflect the complexity and real external impact of the case.

On multiple occasions, the Fujian high court sent the case back to the intermediate court for retrial on the grounds of “unclear facts and insufficient evidence.” This does actually show the high court’s cautious attitude in trying the case. But it’s also worth noting that on June 8, 2009, the Fuzhou Intermediate People’s Court once again sentenced Nian Bin to death for poisoning with a hazardous substance. Once again, Nian appealed the verdict. Only this time, on April 7, 2010, the Fujian high court issued its final ruling, rejecting the appeal and upholding the lower court’s verdict. The case was then sent to the Supreme People’s Court for review of the death sentence in accordance with the law. In other words, the Fujian high court upheld the death sentence against Nian Bin despite its previous findings of “unclear facts and insufficient evidence.” If it weren’t for the SPC decision to reject the death sentence, Nian Bin’s fate and the outcome of the case would most likely have been completely different.

Moreover, since the Fujian high court found multiple times that the case had “unclear facts and insufficient evidence,” why did it continue to send the case back for retrial time and again instead of directly acquitting Nian Bin? In this respect, even though neglect of supervision over the police investigation stage has enormous relevance to the way the case against Nian Bin developed, the Fujian high court’s role in “correcting errors” clearly shouldn’t be overstated.

It’s even more important to see that by only paying attention to the “social and legal impact” of the case, the Fujian high court takes the position of a cool and detached observer without fully considering the fate of Nian Bin, the victim.

No matter how you approach it, the lessons of the Nian Bin case are all very serious. Overturning the verdict in the case merely reflects the ordinary operation of the judicial system’s mechanisms to correct errors. And correction of the errors in this case was never a foregone conclusion and came only after such great difficulty. If it weren’t for the persistence of Nian Bin’s relatives and lawyers and the decision of the SPC not to approve the death sentence, the outcome would be utterly unimaginable. In summing up the case as a participant, the Fujian high court ought to place its primary emphasis on the lessons and errors that led to this wrongful conviction in the first place. It should offer a deep reflection on and take appropriate responsibility for negligence and flaws in trying the case. To talk so single-mindedly about “impact” and “turning negatives into positives” is not only flippant; it makes it difficult for people to have any faith that the court has learned any lessons about miscarriages of justice.

A miscarriage of justice is a miscarriage of justice, and correcting these errors is a basic responsibility of a reasonable judicial system. It’s really inappropriate to one-sidedly prettify this sort of action in a work report.