Tuesday, August 22, 2017

How Transparency in Death Penalty Cases Can Reduce Wrongful Convictions


He Jiahong (right) speaking on a forum at the "World Day Against Death Penalty", October 2014.

He Jiahong is a special kind of Chinese legal expert. He is a well-known legal scholar at Renmin University Law School in Beijing, where he specializes in criminal justice and the issue of wrongful convictions. He is also the author of detective novels and writes prolifically on legal subjects for popular audiences. He reportedly likes to describe himself as: “I am not only a jurist but a novelist, so I often have novel ideas about law.”

One of the ways in which He Jiahong expresses those ideas is through his public WeChat channel—a blog distributed to anyone who subscribes via the social media platform. Recently, he posted a piece with the rather provocative title: “The Number of Executions Should be Made Public.”

In China’s criminal justice discourse, public calls for greater transparency around the use of the death penalty are not unheard of but are nevertheless eye-catching when they do appear, especially from well-known legal experts such as He. Information related to the death penalty, including the number of executions carried out each year, continue to be treated as a closely guarded “state secret.” This is despite the fact that there are many indications that China has significantly reduced its use of capital punishment over the past decade—though it is still generally believed to be the world’s top executioner—and continues to face pressure from NGOs and United Nations human rights bodies to be more transparent about its use of the death penalty.

Changsha Court public announcement of death sentences. Source: Hu Guiyun.

He Jiahong raises some familiar arguments in support of greater transparency about capital punishment in China, including the importance of preventing wrongful executions, demonstrating the progress made in reducing the use of the death penalty, and the value of facilitating public discussion about the future of capital punishment. He clearly believes that openness and greater transparency will help build public trust in the judiciary and show respect for the public’s right to access such information.

He notes that the trend towards online publicization of court documents is making secrecy about capital punishment irrelevant. On this point, he is perhaps overly optimistic. Dui Hua and other organizations that have tried to use online platforms like the Supreme People’s Court’s national database of court judgments have found it seriously lacking when it comes to information about cases involving the death penalty and other “sensitive” subjects.

This suggests that the trend toward judicial transparency is already bound by pre-set limits on what information is considered “appropriate” for public disclosure. If the Chinese government were to do as He Jiahong recommends and make data about capital punishment public, it would first have to make the top-down decision to lift secrecy restrictions. The hope of a shortcut to judicial transparency through the release of court data is unlikely given such secrecy restrictions.

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The Number of Executions Should be Made Public

He Jiahong

He Jiahong, professor at Renmin University School of Law. Source: Financial Times.

On April 27, 1987, a dismembered female corpse was found in the Mianjiang River of Mayang County, Hunan. After searching missing-person’s reports, identification by family members, and blood-type analysis, the police confirmed that the deceased was a woman from Guizhou named Shi Xiaorong who had been missing for a month after working at a local hotel.

After several months of investigation, police determined, based on the manner in which the culprit had dismembered the corpse that the killer was a butcher named Teng Xingshan… On December 6, police placed Teng Xingshan under custody and investigation. Following continuous interrogation, Teng finally “confessed.” On December 13, 1988, the Huaihua Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Teng Xingshan to death. On January 19, 1989, the Hunan Higher People’s Court rejected Teng’s appeal, upheld the original verdict, and approved his death sentence.

In order to ensure that the death penalty is applied impartially and correctly, Chinese law mandates a special review and ratification procedure for death penalty cases, on the principle of a two-stage judicial process of trial and appeal. According to the provisions of the 1979 Criminal Procedure Law, death sentences with two-year reprieve were to be reviewed by high people’s courts and death sentences with immediate execution were to be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court. Regardless of whether or not the defendant filed an appeal, cases involving the death penalty would all be subject to an automatic review process. In 1983, in an effort to “strike hard and fast” against criminal acts that seriously endangered public security and social order, the Supreme People’s Court delegated the power to review death sentences for homicide, rape, robbery, setting explosions, and other serious crimes to high people’s courts. To a certain degree, this led to a loosening of the review and control procedures over the death penalty. Since high people’s courts in provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions were generally the courts hearing appeals in death penalty cases, delegation of the power to review these cases meant that the same court became responsible for hearing the appeal and carrying out the final review. The review and ratification process that had been originally intended as a way to strictly control use of the death penalty became effectively meaningless.

Teng Xingshan’s case was handled under the combined “two-in-one” process of appeal trial and death sentence approval that existed during that particular period of Chinese law. On January 28, 1989, Teng Xingshan was executed by gunshot. However, that wasn’t the end of the case, because the so-called “victim” was still alive and would later “come back to life.”

In 1993, Shi Xiaorong finally made it home to Guizhou after having been abducted and trafficked to Shandong. When she heard about the Teng Xingshan case, she said that she didn’t even know Teng, and certainly did not have any “dubious relationship” with him. She even wrote to the Hunan court, asking it to revoke its mistaken judgment that she had “dubious relations” with Teng Xingshan, had been “murdered” by him, and demanded compensation for her reputation damage. But there was no response from the court. Shi now has a new life and no longer cares about an old case that has nothing to do with her.

News that the “dead had come back to life” eventually reached Teng Xingshan’s family. Teng’s parents had both died not long after their son had been executed. His brother figured that because their family was poor and ordinary they should not oppose the government. Not wanting to make trouble for himself, he decided not to mention the matter to anyone outside the family. In 2004, Teng Xingshan’s daughter Teng Yan had already grown up and worked as a migrant laborer for many years. After she learned the truth about what had happened, she and her younger brother Teng Hui, with help from a lawyer, filed a motion for appeal with the Hunan Provincial Procuratorate and Hunan High People’s Court. On October 25, 2005, the Hunan Higher People’s Court ordered a retrial in Teng Xingshan’s homicide trial and formally acquitted him of the charges. Teng Yan and Teng Hui received state and other compensations in the amount of 666,660 yuan (approximately US$85,000 at the time).

At the time, the National People’s Congress Legislative Affairs Commission was organizing experts and scholars to study ways of reforming the Criminal Procedure Law, and the death penalty review procedure was one of the areas that everyone was paying close attention to. There’s no question that the Teng Xingshan case played a role in pushing forward reform of the death penalty review system. The Supreme People’s Court decided from January 1, 2007, to take back the authority to review death sentences in all cases.

It’s now been 10 years since the reform of the death penalty review system. I was recently asked how I’d evaluate this reform. I said that it’s certainly been very positive, but I would have a hard time saying for sure. I believe that, since the power to review death sentences was returned to the Supreme People’s Court, the death penalty has definitely been applied with much greater strictness, in greater accordance with the rules, and in a more uniform manner. And the number of executions has certainly also decreased by a great deal. But because I don’t know the specific details, it’s impossible to comment in an objective and precise way.

In China, the number of executions seems to be treated as a kind of “state secret”. Those in the know remain tight-lipped on the subject, while those on the outside let their imaginations run wild. In my opinion, there’s no reason to treat the number of executions as a “state secret.” All death sentences in China are handed down and executed openly and in accordance with the law. It’s all perfectly open and aboveboard—executions are not carried out in secret or indiscriminately. Why does the government choose to be so secretive and why is it afraid of keeping the public informed? Disclosing the number of executions will not stain the reputation of the judicial organs or lead to social unrest. Tempered by their experience of numerous wars and disasters, Chinese people surely are psychologically resilient enough to face up to the number of executions!

On this point, policymakers ought to abandon their antiquated ideas of closed-door justice and embrace the modern judicial norms of transparency. Practical experience shows that openness is the best publicity and offers the best route to foster public trust. Publishing execution numbers also demonstrates judicial organs’ respect for citizens’ right to access information (zhiqingquan).

Actually, the Chinese judiciary has already made progress on this front, as court verdicts have begun to be published online! As a technical matter, when court verdicts are all online it won’t be that difficult to use “big data” technology to tally up the number of executions. Even if officials don’t make it public, the public can still find out. Therefore, I recommend that the Supreme People’s Court choose the right moment to begin publishing the number of executions. This can demonstrate the Chinese government’s resolve and sincerity in facing up to capital punishment and promoting civilized justice.

At the present time, there are more than 140 countries and regions in the world that have abolished the death penalty either by law or in practice. This shows that abolishing the death penalty is the general trend of human society because it is in line with the general spirit of humanitarianism and civilized justice. Furthermore, abolishing the death penalty is an effective way to prevent wrongful executions of innocent people. For judicial personnel, “no unjust treatment, no indulging wrongdoings” is but a beautiful tale/lore. Police, prosecutors and judges aren’t supernatural beings, and making the incorrect decisions when evidence is lacking is something that cannot be entirely avoided. Therefore, to prevent further miscarriages of justice in which innocent people are mistakenly put to death, we should seriously consider abolishing capital punishment.

I am deeply aware that China cannot abolish the death penalty at the current time, but we should have an earnest discussion about the issue and, through our efforts, make more of our fellow Chinese understand that the death penalty is not perfectly justified. Our government ought to make a solemn pledge to the world that China will make an effort to abolish the death penalty and that it will start by making the number of executions public so that the world can see the progress of China’s death penalty policies. After several years of continued hard work, China will go from “executing fewer” to “no executions” to full abolition of capital punishment, once again making China one of the most civilized, humane, and harmonious countries in the world!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Violent Crime and Juvenile Justice: Lessons for China and the United States (Part 2 of 2)

Following “Violent Crime and Juvenile Justice: Lessons for China and the United States Part I,” Part II explores the states of California and South Dakota, characterized by their “mid-high” to “high” juvenile confinement rates. Do lower juvenile confinement rates guarantee more lenient policies regarding juvenile waiver into adult court?

Number of Inmates Serving Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Crimes Committed as Juveniles


Data taken from July 2015 study “No Hope: Re-Examining Lifetime Sentences for Juvenile Offenders.” Source: Philips Black.

The US is also dealing with the issue of violent crimes committed by juveniles 15 and under, with perhaps the most famous case being the “Slender Man” incident in Wisconsin, in which two 12-year-old female defendants stabbed a classmate repeatedly and were charged with attempted homicide. Because these cases are highly complex, this article conducts in-depth case studies comparing different state approaches to high profile felonies committed by juveniles 15 and younger, similar to the Slender Man case. Two case studies involve female juvenile defendants, and two involve males. Chinese officials considering policy reforms aimed at curbing violence among very young juveniles might draw important lessons from these state-level US cases.

California: Mid-High Confinement Rate (173-366.5 per 100,000)

Facts: Female defendant, Sarah Weeden, who was 14 at the time of the crime, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced for the murder of Navnil Chand, killed by gunshot by 23-year-old Sertice Melonson. The crime occurred in August 2005. According to testimony at Weeden’s 2008 trial, Weeden agreed to meet Chand at a park for a date and directed him there by cellphone. When he arrived, Melonson waited to rob him. During the robbery, Melonson shot and killed Chand. In April 2017, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Weeden’s conviction and remanded her for a new trial, finding that Weeden’s trial attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to have Weeden evaluated by a psychologist to determine her capacity to form criminal intent. Weeden might be re-tried in juvenile court.

Law and Policies: California has three ways that juveniles can be prosecuted as adults:

  1. Statutory Exclusion: California has a list of offenses, which if committed by a youth aged 14 or older, require that the youth be criminally prosecuted as an adult. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 602(b);
  2. Discretionary Judicial Waiver: The juvenile court has original jurisdiction over most juvenile cases, but in certain delineated cases where the child is at least 16 years old at the time of the offense, the state may request that the juvenile court transfer jurisdiction to adult criminal court. The juvenile court must conduct a hearing and consider statutorily listed factors to determine whether to transfer jurisdiction. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 707;
  3. Once an Adult, Always an Adult: California has a set procedure by which if a juvenile has been adjudicated, and certain criteria are met, all future charges against them will be automatically prosecuted in adult criminal court. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 707.01.

Defendants Waived Into Adult Court? Weeden appears to have been processed automatically in adult trial court pursuant to the “statutory exclusion” provisions above. Weeden’s appellate attorney notes that prosecutors filed directly in Superior Court (i.e., “adult court”) because it was a murder case, without consideration of factors such as Weeden’s age, maturity level, or mental health. Jurors found Weeden guilty of first-degree murder as an aider and abettor to Melonson, and Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne G. Gilliard sentenced her to 27 years to life in prison.

South Dakota: High Rate of Juvenile Confinement (366.5-560 per 100,000)

Facts: In 2000, a jury convicted Daniel Charles of first-degree murder in the sniper killing of his stepfather, Duane Ingalls. Charles was 14 at the time of the crime. Charles was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP), despite the fact that such sentences were largely ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2012. In March 2017, Charles was resentenced to a 92-year sentence, a decision that was upheld by the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Law and Policies: South Dakota has three ways that juveniles can be prosecuted as adults:

  1. Discretionary waiver: for any felony; there is no minimum age requirement. S.D. Codified Laws § 26-11-4;
  2. Statutory Exclusion: required for youth age 16 and older accused of class A, B, C, 1, or 2 felonies. S.D. Codified Laws § 26-11-3.1;
  3. Once an Adult, Always an Adult (if convicted of the offense): S.D. Codified Laws § 26-11-4.

Defendant Waived Into Adult Court? It appears that Charles was waived into adult court based on the “discretionary waiver” provisions listed above.

Figure 1. Selected Non-custodial Measures for Women in Prison in US States

State Confinement Rate, 2013 (per 100,000 juveniles) Defendant Age, Sex, Crime State Laws on Waiver into Adult Court Case Prosecuted in Adult Court?
Wisconsin 109.5-173 12-year-old girl defendants; attempted homicide, stabbing WI law requires children as young as 10 to be charged as adults for homicide crimes Yes
Massachusetts 46-109.5 15-year-old boy defendant; homicide, stabbing Juveniles 14 and older accused of homicide are automatically tried as adults Yes
California 173-366.5 14-year-old girl defendant; homicide, gunshot (participant) Mandatory adult court jurisdiction for violent crimes committed by person 14 or older Yes
South Dakota 366.5-560 14-year-old defendant, homicide, gunshot Discretionary waiver Yes; defendant sentenced to LWOP in 2000, later commuted to 92 years

Reforming Juvenile Sentencing Standards

While the case studies and data presented above are subject to multiple interpretations, the case studies curiously display little correlation between confinement rate and waiver into adult court jurisdiction laws. Where a trend can be identified is in the relationship between high confinement rates and the severity of punishment (as exemplified in the South Dakota case).

Juvenile justice policy reformers have tended to assume that limiting adult court jurisdiction for very young juvenile offenders will help limit unnecessary juvenile confinement. In extremely serious cases involving very young defendants, however, it appears that juvenile court jurisdiction is almost never an option. The two states with the lowest juvenile confinement rates in the case study have the most restrictive laws in favor of trying very young, violent juveniles in adult criminal court: Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Rather than focusing on waiver into adult court in these cases, perhaps juvenile justice reformers should place more emphasis on reforming juvenile sentencing standards and providing defendants with mental health evaluations.

The case study comparison suggests that harsh penalties, rather than mandatory adult court jurisdiction, might co-occur more significantly with high juvenile confinement rates. After all, the state with the highest juvenile confinement rate in the case study, South Dakota, also dealt the harshest penalty: Daniel Charles, the 14-year-old defendant in the South Dakota case, was tried in adult court without a mental health evaluation and was sentenced to life without parole. Even following US Supreme Court criticism of life sentences for juveniles in 2012, the South Dakota court still provided Charles only a nominal commutation to his sentence, reducing the life sentence to a term of 92 years in prison, allowing Charles no chance at parole until he is 60 years old. Further, it appears that only in the bizarre Slender Man case in Wisconsin were the defendants given a mental health evaluation before adjudication. In California, this omission resulted in the reversal of the defendant’s conviction. Increased attention to a defendant’s mental health status might also lower pressure on judges to impose long prison sentences on very young juveniles, thereby reducing the overall rate of confinement in the US.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Violent Crime and Juvenile Justice: Lessons for China and the United States (Part 1 of 2)


In May 2014, two twelve year-old girls were charged with attempted homicide in Wisconsin. Image Credit: Newsweek.

Recently, stories of violent crimes committed by juveniles, particularly girls, have featured widely in Chinese media. Stories include the case of a 14 year old girl in Yunnan who was charged with homicide in cooperation with her much older boyfriend and a 12 year old in Hunan who is suspected of having fatally poisoned two other primary school girls. Dui Hua’s 2014 Women in Prison symposium also features research exploring violent crimes committed by juvenile girls in Beijing courts. It found that the percentage of violent crimes committed by juvenile girls has been increasing over the past several years.

The US is also dealing with the issue of violent crimes committed by juveniles 15 and under, with perhaps the most famous case being the “Slender Man” incident in Wisconsin, in which two 12-year-old female defendants stabbed a classmate repeatedly and were charged with attempted homicide. Because these cases are highly complex, this article conducts in-depth case studies comparing different state approaches to high profile felonies committed by juveniles 15 and younger, similar to the Slender Man case. Two case studies involve female juvenile defendants, and two involve males. Chinese officials considering policy reforms aimed at curbing violence among very young juveniles might draw important lessons from these state-level US cases.

Putting the Case Studies in Perspective

To better understand these case studies on violent juvenile crime, this section provides a survey of each state’s rate of juvenile confinement. State juvenile policy works best when the lowest possible proportion of the juvenile population is confined in a detention facility.

Understanding each state’s juvenile confinement rate will then allow for the selection of state-level case studies that reflect the variation in juvenile justice policy across the United States. Using the map below, we hope to identify what conditions are operating in states that do a good job of keeping juveniles out of adult prisons.

The data and maps used in this article come from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which collects comprehensive data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The following map is based on the most recent available data from 2013. [1]


In the map above, it appears that in general, lower confinement rates are found in the Northeast and in some states in the South. (The raw data for 2013 can be found here.)

State-Level Case Studies of Violent Crimes Committed by Young Juveniles

Based on this map of juvenile confinement rates, case studies were selected from different states to get a sense of the variations in juvenile justice performance across the country. The case studies focus on violent crimes committed by juveniles in four states: Massachusetts, Wisconsin, California, and South Dakota, each with varying juvenile confinement rates. Massachusetts has a “low” confinement rate, Wisconsin has a “mid-low” rate, California has a “mid-high” rate, and South Dakota has a “high” rate.

This case selection is intended to gain a better understanding of the spectrum of regional variations in juvenile justice performance across the US, even though the cases themselves likely represent a small number of recent violent juvenile crimes committed in the US.

Massachusetts: Low Confinement Rate (46-109.5 per 100,000 juveniles)

Facts: Fifteen year-old Mathew Borges is accused of stabbing Viloria Paulino, his Lawrence High School classmate on November 18, 2016, decapitating him and mutilating his body.

Laws and Policies: Massachusetts has one way that juveniles can be prosecuted as adults: “Statutory exclusion: [adult court original jurisdiction is] mandatory for youth 14 and older charged with first-degree or second-degree murder. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 119, § 72B.”

Defendants Waived Into Adult Court? The defendant was automatically processed in adult court based on the severity of the charges: “Borges will be arraigned in Lawrence District Court…as an adult on a count of first degree murder.”

Wisconsin: Mid-Low Confinement Rate (109.5-173 per 100,000)

Facts: In May 2014, two 12-year-old girls stabbed another girl of the same age 19 times to impress the fictional “Slender Man” horror character; the case has received extensive media attention and the trial is now pending in adult court.

Laws and Policies: In the “Slender Man” case, the adult court assumed mandatory “original jurisdiction” over the case, even though the defendants were 12 years-old, because under Wis. Stat. Sec. 938.183(1), “adult courts have exclusive original jurisdiction over first degree intentional homicide, attempted first degree intentional homicide, first degree reckless homicide, second degree intentional homicide.” According to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, “Wisconsin’s lowest age of automatic adult court jurisdiction (age 10) is the lowest in the nation,” and “Wisconsin is one of only 7 states remaining in which youth under 18 are automatically considered adults.” For less serious offenses, Wisconsin youth ages 15 and 16 can still be waived into adult court for any delinquent offense, and for a few serious offenses youth as young as 14 may be waived. Wis. Stat. Sec. 938.18(1).

Defendants Waived Into Adult Court? The defendants were automatically placed into adult court, as mandated by law, and appealed their placement in adult court. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the placement of defendants in adult court, and denied a related motion for “reverse waiver” that would have placed defendants back in juvenile court: “Wisconsin law requires children as young as 10 to be charged as adults for the most serious crimes, but allows them to seek transfer back to juvenile court, as was recently tried, unsuccessfully, by the two 12-year-old Waukesha girls charged with trying to kill a sixth grade classmate last year to please Slender Man.”

Continued in Part II...


1. OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book. “The information in this table is based on the state where the offense was committed. However, the state of offense is not always reported. Youth for whom state of offense was unknown are included in U.S. totals (3,401 in 1997). These instances are not evenly distributed across states. As such, users should exercise caution when examining state-level trends or comparing states. Visit the EZACJRP methods section for more information. U.S. total excludes youth in tribal facilities. The residential placement rate is the number of juvenile offenders in residential placement per 100,000 juveniles age 10 through the upper age of original juvenile court jurisdiction in each state. To preserve the privacy of the juvenile residents, state cell counts have been rounded to the nearest multiple of three. Detail may not add to total because of rounding. Rates and percentages presented are also based on rounded totals. More information on this rounding rule is available on the EZACJRP Web site.” Return to article

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The “Hidden Rules” of China’s Criminal Justice System


Rule of Law was a centerpiece of the Fourth Plenum meeting of the Central Committee of the CCP in October 2014. Image Credit: Getty Images.

Xi Jinping made judicial reform a priority item on his agenda after fully taking power in 2013. He promised to “construct a rule-of-law country” and repeatedly emphasized the need for governing with respect to Chinese law and the constitution. Legal institutions were the focus of the “Fourth Plenum” meeting of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2014, which pledged to “strive to let the popular masses feel justice in every court case.” Since then, efforts have been undertaken to “deepen” reform of the country’s legal institutions and officials have been served notice to achieve their reform targets before the upcoming 19th Party Congress later this year.

In the run up to the 19th Party Congress, we should expect to hear more talk of the great achievements and successful reforms of China’s judicial system. In February, the Supreme People’s Court released a white paper on judicial reform describing its progress in improving the efficiency, accountability, and transparency of the judicial system and declaring that 63 of the 65 reform goals it had set for itself to achieve by 2018 had already been basically accomplished by the end of 2016.

The reform of China’s law-enforcement and judicial institutions has certainly made some progress in recent years, but are there problems in the country’s legal system that remain untouched by these reforms and continue to undermine the ability of those institutions to deliver justice?

According to Professor Chen Ruihua, an expert on criminal procedure law at Peking University Law School, the answer is a resounding yes. In a recent blog post, widely circulated online, Chen observes that there are 17 “hidden rules” that govern how the Chinese criminal justice system “really” operates. These rules describe a system of collusion between institutions intended to check each other’s powers, courts that are fundamentally biased against defendants, and a coordinated effort to limit the impact of defense lawyers.

A list like this is clearly not meant to be analytical, though Chen has spoken and written quite frankly and at length on the flaws he observes in China’s criminal justice system. At a time of renewed ideological attacks against judicial independence and separation of powers, it takes courage to even raise the possibility that the progress of Chinese legal reform is not everything it’s made out to be.

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17 “Hidden Rules” of China’s Criminal Justice System

In the Chinese criminal justice system, the “gong-jian-fa” institutions (public security, procuratorate, and courts) follow a set of “hidden rules” outside of the formal legal system. These “hidden rules” have great vitality and have operated over a long period of time, making it difficult to change them despite revisions to the criminal procedure law or even judicial reforms. Professor Chen Ruihua sums up these “hidden rules” as follows:

  1. The investigative organs will only file a case for investigation when that case has already been solved.
  2. Most of the public security organ’s criminal investigation activity is completed before issuing the decision to arrest.
  3. The vast majority of cases are only solved after obtaining a confession of guilt by the suspect.
  4. If it were not for the purposeful restriction of the rights of defense lawyers and the extralegal detention measures against suspects, solving criminal cases would be extremely difficult for the majority of investigative organs.
  5. Compared to plaintiffs in civil trials, the public prosecutor in a criminal trial has a far stronger appetite for “winning”.
  6. When a case lacks clear facts or evidence, the procuratorate would rather withdraw the prosecution than allow the court to acquit the defendant.
  7. Almost all police and procurators treat defense lawyers with a certain degree of hostility.
  8. When a case lacks clear facts or evidence, courts will generally issue decisions that “give lenient punishment when there is doubt” or “remand for retrial;” the “presumption of innocence” is an extremely rare exception.
  9. Nearly all first-instance trials proceed by reading the record of criminal investigation aloud.
  10. In cases where the defendant hasn’t put forward enough exculpatory evidence, the court’s judgement is basically a kind of process to affirm the conclusions of the investigators and prosecutors.
  11. The vast majority of criminal judges lean toward the side of prosecution and will do everything they can to avoid allowing a “guilty” defendant to escape justice.
  12. Judgments in the vast majority of cases are reached outside of the trial process.
  13. The vast majority of judges turn a blind eye to procedural violations of law made by police, procurators, and first-instance trial judges.
  14. When a defendant refuses to admit guilt during the investigation or trial phases, it becomes a significant basis for the court to impose a more severe punishment.
  15. In the vast majority of cases it is a “responsible” judge that makes the judgement decision.
  16. Judges would rather write extremely detailed “trial conclusion reports” than provide detailed reasoning for their judgments.
  17. Whether it is the individual police, procurator, judge, or the “gong-jian-fa” organs, each has a direct interest in how criminal cases are decided.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Chinese Court Decision Highlights the Need for Full Implementation of Anti-Domestic Violence Law


A woman stands near videos from an exhibition on domestic violence in China. Image Credit: The Guardian.

The Ordos Intermediate People’s Court in Inner Mongolia recently convicted a local government official of battering his wife—the journalist Hong Mei—to death. The case has received significant attention largely due to Hong’s standing as a successful journalist who had been reporting on domestic violence and the implementation of China’s year-old Anti-Domestic Violence Law. Major Chinese news organizations covering Hong’s death include Xinhua, Caixin, Sina, and Tencent News. Digital media outlets Quartz and Sixth Tone also reported the story.

Brutal Death of a Promising Woman Journalist Strikes a Nerve

Hong’s death touches a raw nerve with the many Chinese citizens who recognize domestic violence as a major social problem. As described in a mournful report published shortly after her death, Hong was an especially poignant victim. Personal artifacts remaining in her office at the Hangjinqi Broadcasting and Television Bureau speak to a respected journalist devoted to her work and family.

While China’s post-1978 reform era has brought about a degree of economic and social liberalization that has created greater opportunities for women, according to The New York Times it “has also fostered a resurgence of long-repressed traditional values. More and more men and women say a woman’s place is in the home, wealthy men take mistresses in a contemporary reprise of the concubine system, and pressure for women to marry young is intense.” Increasing numbers of professional women in China, such as Hong, encounter obstacles to professional achievement stemming from domestic violence and a male-dominated workplace culture. Although China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law came into effect on March 1, 2016 and receives strong support from the public, it still suffers from weak implementation, and the number of domestic violence cases continue to be alarmingly high. The All-China Women’s Federation found that a quarter of all married women in China experience some form of domestic violence.

Domestic Violence and Women in Prison

Women make up an overwhelming majority of the victims of domestic violence. While spousal abuse perpetrated against women is often trivialized or ignored by local law enforcement, survivors’ defensive strategies are routinely criminalized. In some provinces, the number of female offenders who are in prison for committing crimes related to domestic violence (such as fighting back to defend themselves or their children) can account for up to 22% of the total serious female offender prison population. Recognizing the gendered nature of domestic violence and the importance of putting in place preventative and interventionist measures to protect potential victims and survivors would go a long way in reducing China’s female prison population, which has been on the rise in recent years.

The Anti-Domestic Violence Law rightly addresses the issue. Of special significance is the introduction of “personal safety protection orders.” The law marks the first time on a national legislative scale that protection orders (essentially a restraining order) can be issued by a court without the need for a lawsuit to be filed. Alongside the orders, the law also emphasizes the importance of public education and a community-based approach towards intervention whereby groups such as schools, medical facilities, and neighborhood committees are responsible for reporting cases of domestic violence. With the rising number of women in prison and the fact that their crimes are often the last resort of an abuse victim, preventative measures not only ensure that victims are protected as early as possible, they also have the long-term collateral impact of reducing a woman’s risk of incarceration.

However, preventative measures can only be successful if implemented. It is crucial that police and courts are responsive and protective of victims before domestic violence cases escalate. Currently, even with the Anti-Domestic Violence Law well into its first year of implementation, numerous women’s rights groups have expressed disappointment in law enforcement and judicial handling of domestic violence cases—the former for failing to intervene and provide refuge for victims, and the latter for the long turnaround time in issuing protection orders.

Court Decision Documents a Sad History of Abuse

If Hong’s story generates sympathy among Chinese citizens and women’s rights advocates, the background of her abuser, Jin Zhu, likely also taps into the broader societal anger directed at government officials within China. Jin was a government official in Ordos, giving Chinese citizens yet another example of a lawbreaking official to rail against (according to a Pew Global Attitudes survey, four out of five Chinese citizens consider malfeasance in office by government officials a big problem).

The facts of the case indicate that Jin is a serial domestic abuser who showed no remorse for his criminal actions. In its decision, the court made clear that Jin’s violence against Hong was hardly an isolated incident—it not only detailed Jin’s terrorizing Hong over the several hours that led to her death on April 6, 2016, but also noted specifically that Jin physically attacked Hong many times throughout their relationship. A Caixin summary of the court’s full opinion recounts that in 2013, Jin battered Hong so badly she had to go to the hospital; she initially refused to return home, but finally did so after Jin promised that he would not batter her again.

Jin showed no remorse in court, offering a flimsy intoxication defense: according to Cao Chunfeng, the lawyer representing Hong’s family, Jin blamed his actions on “getting blackout drunk” and stated that, as such, “it couldn’t be ruled out that another person committed the crime.” Jin never admitted guilt in court.

Did Local Procuratorates Pursue the Correct Charges Against Jin?

The court found Jin guilty of “intentional injurious assault” (guyi shanghai zui) and ordered a suspended death sentence (which can be commuted to life in prison after two years). It isn’t clear why an intentional homicide (guyi sharen) conviction was not pursued since the court stated that Jin “battered victim Hong Mei on the evening of April 5, 2016 because she went to a social event, and after getting drunk he battered her until she was dead.” The definitions of these crimes are simple, and under Article 232 of the Criminal Law “anyone who intentionally kills a person” is guilty of intentional homicide, liable for punishment ranging from three years in prison to the death penalty.

Under Article 172 of the PRC Criminal Procedure Law, the people’s procuratorate possesses authority to bring specific crimes to court for criminal prosecution. Although the specific factors considered by the procuratorate in its charging decision are unclear, it would be a poor precedent if the court was persuaded by Jin’s intoxication defense and found that he lacked the requisite criminal intent to commit homicide. In its full opinion, the court emphasized that Jin’s intoxication was wholly voluntary and that he exhibited a long history of physically assaulting Hong. His intent to kill can be deduced from his actions over several years. If China’s legal authorities refrained from prosecuting Jin to the fullest extent of the law, they risk sending the message that alcohol intoxication is at least a partial defense to domestic violence charges.

Leniency for domestic abusers like Jin might also contribute to rising numbers of incarcerated women in China. Domestic violence is a major contributing factor to crime among women, as women who fight back against their abusers can receive severe prison sentences and heavy criminal charges. The Supreme People’s Court has recognized the importance of this issue by developing national sentencing standards for cases involving domestic violence and women. The case of Li Yan (李彦), who had been beaten and tortured by her spouse, is perhaps the most famous example of violent self-defense by a victim of domestic abuse. Li was initially sentenced to death for killing her husband in self-defense before her sentence was reduced in the wake of mounting public pressure in 2015.

China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law Must Be Fully Implemented

Unfortunately, China’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law came too late for Hong Mei. She was killed on April 6, 2016, just a few short weeks after the law took effect on March 1. Had the law been passed earlier, Hong might have obtained a “personal safety protection order” against her husband in 2013 after she was hospitalized for injuries he inflicted on her during a violent beating. As it was, Hong sought a divorce, but abandoned her effort “under pressure from those around her.” The new law is designed to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to overcome societal pressure that makes it difficult for women to protect themselves against male perpetrators of domestic violence.

According to the Anti-Domestic Violence Law, victims can apply for personal safety protection orders through their local courts, which must respond within 72 hours, or 24 hours in the case of emergencies. If an application is successful, protection orders can forbid contact between the victim and their abuser and demand that the abuser move out of their residence. If a victim of domestic violence is unable to apply for protection orders on their own, relatives or welfare organizations can apply for the orders on the victim’s behalf. The efficacy of protection orders in stopping domestic violence has already been proven in China. In 2008, the Supreme People’s Court experimented with allowing local courts to use protection orders in lawsuits involving domestic violence; over 90% of the orders proved successful in stopping the violence. However, prior to the introduction of the Anti-Domestic Violence Law, getting a protection order required filing a lawsuit, which took time and placed the burden of proof on the victim. Under the new law, the court can grant a protection order without bringing a lawsuit.

Now that the Anti-Domestic Violence Law has taken effect, proper implementation is key. Hopefully, Hong’s case will inspire tougher enforcement and greater societal support of victims. Although a promising first step, handing down harsh punishment to perpetrators of domestic violence does not address the root causes nor the rising number of women such as Li Yan who, after years of suffering domestic abuse, end up in prison. That said, the Anti-Domestic Violence Law has the potential to make a difference, particularly in the lives of female victims of domestic violence. If fully implemented, it offers them, their children, and other victims of domestic abuse a legal way out of a dangerous situation. For some of these women, it may also mean the difference between freedom and incarceration.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Revitalization of “Work-Study Schools” for Juveniles?


A boy work-study school in Shanghai. With difficulties in school enrollment this class only has two students. Image Credit: ThePaper.Cn

As China’s juvenile crime rate continues to rise and panic over the prevalence of school bullying and violence sets in authorities in China are turning to new and more effective ways to deal with the problem of correcting serious misbehavior by juveniles—especially those between the ages of 13 and 16.

Lately, there has been renewed attention on the possibility of revitalizing an institution from the past: the “work-study school (gongdu xuexiao).” In Hubei, for example, provincial authorities recently issued a joint opinion authorizing use of work-study schools for students who engage in repeated acts of bullying or violence and fail to respond to other disciplinary measures. Following recent measures adopted by several other provinces including Shandong and Jiangsu, work-study schools are poised to once again play a role in preventing and correcting juvenile crime.

Unless the implementation of work-study schools is accompanied by national legislative reform and a commitment to providing the necessary associated resources, it is unlikely that these schools will be able to play a significant role in addressing the root causes of school-based violence or other types juvenile delinquency.

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Originally established in the Soviet Union as a means of dealing with the problem of orphans after the Second World War, work-study schools first arrived in China in 1955 and became one of several means for handling the problem of juvenile delinquency.

As the name implies, “work-study schools” once included workshops so that students could engage in productive labor to complement their studies. Into the 1980s and early 1990s, police continued to place juveniles in work-study schools, particularly juveniles who had committed minor infractions of the law or those who committted more serious offenses but who could not be held legally responsible due to their age.

With the passage of the Law on Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency in 1999, work-study schools became officially voluntary. Parents or guardians of school-aged children who engaged in one of nine categories of “serious misbehavior,” ranging from disruption of public order to repeated theft to drug usage, could apply to education authorities to transfer their children to a work-study school for a combined course of education, treatment, and correction.

These reforms have generally brought significant changes and improved conditions at the schools. Though still commonly known as “work-study schools,” the institutions no longer require students to participate in productive labor. Instead, the focus is on providing students with an environment in which they can complete middle-school curriculum as part of the national nine-year compulsory education system and receive treatment targeted at correcting their behavioral issues. Though this environment remains highly regimented, with continuous monitoring and an emphasis on instilling discipline, physical punishment is a much rarer occurrence.

But the voluntary nature of the schools has also contributed to their general decline. Stories of the prison-like conditions and corporal punishment of former work-study schools have meant that parents are often reluctant to send their children to these schools, fearing both the stigma attached and the potential for bad habits and behaviors to be reinforced through proximity to other troubled teenagers. Even with a name-change to “special education schools” (zhuanmen jiaoyu xuexiao), the negative reputation of the “work-study school” still lingers.

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As a result, across the country once-full “work-study schools” have seen their student numbers decline despite an increase in delinquency rates. In some schools, teachers have come to outnumber students. Many institutions have been forced to close. This may be one reason why supporters of these institutions are seeking to present them as a valuable asset to society that can help respond to the problem of school violence. Experts on juvenile delinquency like Yao Jianlong see work-study schools as an important form of community-based corrections that can be used as an intermediate measure between doing nothing and mobilizing the machinery of the criminal justice system. For the schools to have that impact, however, there needs to be a mechanism through which students most in need of the schools’ educational offerings would be sent there.

This would, at the very least, necessitate amendments to the Law on Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency and would most likely require complementing legislative changes to ensure that any administrative or judicial decision compelling a child to attend a “special education school” is accompanied by a right to appeal and other procedures aimed at protecting the rights of the child and their parents. Unless such actions are taken, it seems doubtful that even widespread public concern about school violence will see a resurgence of China’s work-study schools.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Medical Parole for Li Baocheng: Increasing Judicial Transparency


Prayers at an underground home church in Beijing. Image Credit: BBC.

Li Baocheng (李保成), a 79-year-old Christian Church leader from the central province of Henan, is finally being considered for medical parole after receiving a four-year sentence for fraud and “inciting subversion” in December 2015.

As Dui Hua first reported a year ago, authorities in the city of Nanyang accused Li Baocheng of illicitly collecting “baptism fees” from members of his Huangjinduo Christian Church and organizing a political party aimed at overthrowing the Chinese Communist Party. While awaiting the results of his appeal, Li suffered a brain hemorrhage that left him seriously impaired. Recently published court documents show that judicial authorities have begun deliberating whether Li should serve the remainder of his sentence at home under conditions of medical parole.

About Li Baocheng

Li served two earlier prison sentences, one in the 1970s for “counterrevolution” and again in the 1980s for “disturbing social order.” Nonetheless, he went on to become a successful entrepreneur, winning official praise for providing material support in 1987 to Chinese troops at the Sino-Vietnam border.

Something evidently changed in recent years. Li and four fellow members of his Christian church were taken into custody in April 2015. Their arrest took place just after they led a demonstration of over 200 church members on the streets of Nanzhao County. Demonstrators chanted slogans against the police and judiciary and called for an end to “American imperialism.” Investigators tied the protests to attempts by Li and others to form a new political party that would replace the Chinese Communist Party, which Li allegedly predicted was on its way to “self-destruction.”

In December 2015, after receiving a four-year sentence followed by two years of deprivation of political rights from the Nanyang Intermediate People’s Court, Li and his defense counsel filed an appeal to the Henan Higher People’s Court. But before the higher court could issue its ruling, Li suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was transferred from the county detention center to a hospital. In August 2016, after Li’s appeal was rejected, his lawyer filed an application for medical parole with the Nanyang Intermediate Court.

For reasons that are not immediately clear, Li’s application was reviewed by the court’s juvenile tribunal. Li underwent a court-ordered medical examination in December 2016, which confirmed that he was suffering from the after-effects of an intracerebral hemorrhage (including paralysis on the right side of his body). Li was also diagnosed with dangerously high blood pressure. A court-appointed medical forensics expert submitted an affidavit certifying that Li’s condition was serious enough to qualify him for medical parole in accordance with legal provisions. The reviewing tribunal agreed and filed the case with the court’s adjudication review tribunal at the end of February 2017. At the time the case was filed, Li Baocheng was recuperating at home.

Medical Parole

Under the current regulations governing the granting of medical release, parole and other non-custodial enforcement mechanisms, the body responsible for reviewing the request must first post details of the case online for a period of ‘public comment.’ For this purpose, courts use a central online platform hosted by the Supreme People’s Court, which is also used as a space to announce sentence reduction and parole decisions. In Li Baocheng’s case, the period of public review concluded on or about March 15.

It’s unclear when the court will issue its decision. Provincial rules stipulate a series of additional review steps before a final decision on medical parole can be made. Once the adjudication review tribunal makes its preliminary decision, it submits the case to the court’s adjudication committee for discussion and then to a division of the court at the next administrative level for review (in this case, the Henan Higher People’s Court).

Assuming that Li Baocheng’s application for medical parole is successful, he will then become the responsibility of the local community corrections unit. Every three months, Li’s health will be monitored to determine whether his condition still qualifies for medical parole. (Typically, release on medical parole is subject to review by the court adjudication committee every six months to assess whether the parolee still qualifies.) All expenses related to medical treatment and care will be Li’s responsibility.

Li’s four-year sentence is due to expire on April 15, 2019.

Greater Transparency?

The procedures surrounding sentence reduction and parole (including medical parole) have tightened considerably in recent years. The process has become more elaborate, with a number of review stages introduced at different administrative levels. In addition, there is an active effort to increase transparency through the use of the Internet and public comment periods. Both these steps have been taken in the interest of reducing the impact of corruption on judicial decision-making and reversing the perception among many in the public that individuals with wealth and power can manipulate the system in their favor.

Increased disclosure of documents related to prosecution and adjudication along with the wider release of information related to sentence reductions and parole proceedings are examples of how China’s judicial system is gradually becoming more transparent. In the process, the increased transparency helps shed light on a criminal justice system that is still quite opaque—particularly where sensitive crimes such as those falling under the category of “endangering state security” are concerned.