Wednesday, May 6, 2009

After Six Years, Innocent Man Escapes Execution

Last week, Nanning's Southland Morning News (南国早报) published the incredible story of Zhuo Fakun, a 39-year-old farmer from Liuping Village in central Guangxi (original Chinese article begins here and concludes on a second webpage). In November 2002, Zhuo was apprehended from a construction site where he was working as a laborer and charged with the brutal murder of an elderly woman back in his hometown. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but continued to maintain his innocence while his case bounced back and forth in the local court system. After Zhuo had spent 2,339 days—nearly 6-1/2 years—in detention, most of that time forced to wear the heavy leg shackles worn by death-row prisoners, judges from the Guangxi High People's Court went to the Laibin Detention Center on April 24 to tell Zhuo that he was free to go home.

As Gao Yifei, a law professor at Southwest University of Politics and Law in Chongqing, has pointed out in a commentary, the case against Zhuo Fakun was so defective that it's hard to explain why it took six years to release him. The prosecution's main evidence against Zhuo was his confession to police, but several details in that confession contradicted each other as well as the testimony of other witnesses—none of whom were eyewitnesses to the murder. For instance, Zhuo reportedly confessed six different times to committing the murder "just after 10 p.m.," but according to the testimony of another witness, Zhuo had been in another village drinking with his brother-in-law on the night of the crime and had not returned to Liuping until well after 11 p.m. Neither police nor prosecutors submitted other evidence to explain how Zhuo could have committed the crime given the time discrepancies. Another key piece of evidence was a blood-stained shirt belonging to Zhuo that had been retrieved at the time of his arrest. The blood on the shirt was determined to be of the same type as that of the victim, but Zhuo's blood type was also a match, and police investigators never provided any evidence (such as DNA tests) to establish the source of the blood on Zhuo's shirt.

Despite the many holes in the prosecution's case, the Laibin Intermediate People's Court convicted Zhuo Fakun of murder and sentenced him to death in July 2003. Zhuo appealed the conviction, and more than a year later the Guangxi High People's Court ruled that the facts in the case were unclear and the evidence was insufficient. A retrial was ordered, and four months later, in December 2004, the Laibin Intermediate People's Court once again sentenced Zhuo to death. Zhuo again appealed and, this time, benefitted from the work of a legal aid defense attorney who began to poke holes in the prosecution's case. In the end, even prosecutors had to acknowledge that their case against Zhuo was weak and the Guangxi High Court decided to acquit him.

In his remarks on the case, Prof. Gao essentially takes for granted the likelihood that Zhuo Fakun's confession was extracted through police torture, considering it the only reasonable explanation for why someone would falsely confess to a crime carrying the death penalty. But Gao's harshest criticism is of the Laibin court for failing to act independently and, twice, "accommodating itself" to police, prosecutors, and (he suspects) pressure from local party and government officials. He argues that had the case been tried in open court with full media coverage from the beginning, judges "wouldn't have issued such a foolish judgment that defies common sense." Most egregiously, Gao argues, the courts failed to exercise sufficient caution with their gravest of powers, showing "utter disregard for human life" in the process.

Unlike in the United States, where individuals awaiting execution routinely sit on death row for years while appeal motions are filed and refiled, the wheels of China's criminal justice system tend to move quickly in capital cases. With at least 5,000 executions expected to take place in China this year, the country carries out far more death sentences than the rest of the world combined. And under the banner of "striking hard," there is little support for letting convicted murderers and others awaiting execution languish in detention for too long. In this light, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Zhuo Fakun's case was how slowly the wheels of justice actually turned. Although in this instance it shouldn't have been necessary to take six years to bring justice to Zhuo, one wonders how many more innocent men and women might have been spared from execution in China had the judicial process moved more deliberately and their cases scrutinized with more care.