Dui Hua has obtained 525 reviews of death penalty decisions by China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) between 2013 and 2015. Of the 525 SPC reviews in the Dui Hua sample, only two percent were reversed--a figure considerably lower than that provided by SPC officials in 2014, when it was estimated that the SPC reversal rate was near 10 percent.
In carrying out its reviews, the SPC may consider several mitigating factors, including the defendant’s remorse, good behavior, and role in the crime, as well as the severity of the crime. Poverty is another mitigating factor that, while sometimes ignored, has the potential to decrease the number of executions China carries out each year. A collection of drug-related death penalty cases the SPC overturned between 1997 and 2015 demonstrates the court’s willingness to take economic factors into account.
In 2007, Li Budu (李补都), a native of Sichuan Province, was sentenced to death for transporting over 1,000 g of heroin—20 times the 50 g threshold making drug transport a capital crime. After Li’s loss on appeal, the SPC ultimately found that, while Li should be severely punished due to the quantity of drugs involved in his case, the poverty level of Li’s family and other mitigating factors were sufficient to reverse the sentence.
In advocating leniency in Li’s case, the SPC noted that the people sentenced for transporting drugs—as opposed to smuggling, trafficking, or manufacturing them—are usually “farmers, people living in border regions [which have higher rates of poverty], or people experiencing unemployment, whose motives are to solve economic difficulties.”
Recognizing poverty in death penalty decisions is just and equitable because it takes into account the circumstances affecting individuals’ choices to engage in criminal activity. It is also economical: as an infographic from Chinese news portal NetEase makes clear, the cost of the death penalty is rising. These costs include travel reimbursements for SPC judges’ traveling from Beijing to local jurisdictions to interview defendants, defense attorney fees, equipment necessary to shift from firing squad to lethal injection as the preferred method of execution, and state compensation in the event of wrongful execution.
Costs are likely to add up during the period before a capital case ever reaches the SPC for final review. It now it takes an average of six months for a death sentence to reach the SPC after pronouncement by an Intermediate People’s Court and review by a High People’s Court.
China has committed to gradually reducing use of the death penalty, but downward trends have stalled in recent years. Dui Hua estimates that China executed about 2,400 people per year in 2013, 2014, and 2015, after marking annual declines in the previous three years and a precipitous drop from 6,500 executions per year in 2007—the year the SPC regained final authority to review death sentences.