Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Court Promises Death to Quell Petitions

On August 2, 2001, a 13-year-old girl surnamed Guo was raped and murdered on the banks of the Sha River in central Henan Province while gathering cicada nymphs for sale. Several days later, police in Ye County detained a local man, Li Huailiang, who that same day had been seen in the same area collecting the same insects. Two years passed before the case went to trial.

At trial, Li proclaimed his innocence and recanted an earlier confession that he alleged had been coerced through torture. Nevertheless, the Ye County People’s Court found him guilty and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. Neither the defendant nor the victim’s family was satisfied with the verdict, so an appeal was made to the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court, which rejected the verdict on the grounds of “unclear facts and insufficient evidence” and sent the case back to Ye County for retrial.

Although a new trial was held, the Ye County court never issued a new decision. Instead, the case was retried in first instance by the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court, which convicted Li Huailiang and sentenced him to death in August 2004. Still insisting on his innocence, Li again appealed to the provincial high court, which once again rejected the verdict on the grounds of “unclear facts and insufficient evidence.” The Pingdingshan court retried the case in April 2006 and handed down a death sentence with two-year reprieve, but this, too, was rejected by the provincial court on appeal.

The death penalty guarantee on letterhead of
the Pingdingshan Intermediate People's Court
signed by the victim's parents and witnesses.
Source: China Comment
Since September 2006, there have been no further court hearings, and Li Huailiang has remained in the local detention center for nearly 11 years with his legal fate still uncertain. About the only thing that has been made clear in the course of the case is that the evidence against Li is flimsy. According to Li’s sister, blood and sperm samples recovered from the crime scene don’t correspond to Li and footprints don’t match up, either.

Li Huailiang’s legal limbo may come to an end soon, however, after a document from his case file was leaked online earlier this year. The handwritten document, entitled “Letter of Guarantee,” appears on stationary of the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court and is signed by the parents of the murdered girl. In it, they request that the court “sentence Li Huailiang to life imprisonment or, even better, death” and “guarantee” that were the court to do so, they would accept the verdict and stop petitioning about the case—even if the court’s verdict were later rejected by a higher court on appeal. Not long after the victim’s parents submitted their “guarantee,” the court issued its death sentence.

Media Coverage

Investigative journalists working for Guangdong newspapers began reporting on this story in February 2012, but the story did not gain much traction. The timing was certainly inconvenient, from the perspective of the authorities who decide what stories may and may not be reported in China’s media. The annual plenary session of the National People’s Congress was set to open in a matter of days after the story first broke, and one of the main topics for discussion was proposed revision of the Criminal Procedure Law. Perhaps this explains why the case disappeared from public view for several months.

But the scandalous story of the “death sentence guarantee” is now back, and it has an even brighter spotlight shining upon it. On June 6, the case was reported again in China Comment, a semi-monthly publication of the Xinhua News Agency with close links to the Central Publicity Department of the Communist Party. Then on June 12, China Comment followed up with a new report citing internal court documents that appear to show that the “guarantee” had been written after discussions with the then-president of the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court, Zhao Mingzhang, and agreed to by a deputy secretary of the local politico-legal committee. The whistleblower responsible for leaking the documents reportedly gave them to China Comment in hopes that the case would get the attention of central party leaders who might intervene and bring resolution to the case.

The day before these latest revelations, on June 11, a Guangzhou lawyer named Geng Shuang (耿爽) published a sharp critique of the case (translated below) in Southern Metropolis Daily. Though Geng is critical of officials at the Pingdingshan court for placing considerations of stability above basic principles of legal procedure and fairness, she recognizes that cases like these are not isolated but, rather, are systemic in nature. When pressure is put on judges and court officials to make decisions that will not lead to petitioning or other potentially destabilizing activity, courts risk straying from the ideals of independent and objective adjudication. Focusing on rule of law and justice is a better path to long-term stability, she concludes, because it reinforces public trust in the judicial system, instead of destroying it.


Ridiculous “Death Sentence Guarantee” Devalues Public Trust in the Judicial Process
Geng Shuang
Southern Metropolis Daily
June 11, 2012

According to a report in the June 6 edition of China Comment magazine, the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court in Henan Province, in order to prevent the relatives of a victim in a murder case from petitioning, actually “promised” to sentence the suspect in that case to death. Even though the verdict was rejected by the Henan High People’s Court because of insufficient evidence, the suspect continues to remain locked up in a detention center, held beyond legal time limits for more than 10 years.

Thereafter, the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court issued a statement via weibo [a Twitter-like service] to deny the report, saying that from the content of the “letter of guarantee” one could see that it was a letter of request by the victim’s relatives, not an agreement, and that no person from the court had signed it.

Looking back at the case, on the evening of August 2, 2001, the body of Guo Xia [This is identified as a pseudonym in the original source—Trans.], a villager from Wanli Village, Ye County, Henan, was found dumped in a river. Li Huailiang, from the same village, was arrested on suspicion of intentional homicide. A total of seven trials were held and three verdicts annulled because of insufficient evidence. During the trial, the victim’s mother Du Yuhua demanded severe punishment for the “murderer,” lest she go to the [top of the] court building and jump. This is the origin of the so-called death sentence guarantee or application.

As a legal professional, I am deeply shocked by seeing this kind of ridiculous incident that goes against the spirit of the law—even though this is not the first time. This letter of guarantee or application was a promise or appeal made to the court by the victim’s relatives, and the Pingdingshan intermediate court admits that it was a promise by a single party and not a two-party agreement. Be that as it may, this guarantee is neither evidence used to weigh the facts [in the case] nor legal statute to determine guilt or assign a penalty. So how did it end up in the case file? No matter what explanation is given by the court involved, the answer is all too clear: this is a guarantee against petitioning demanded by the court of the victim’s relatives. What sort of mindset did the court have in demanding that the victim’s relatives make this kind of guarantee? Actually, the court is truly helpless, because if it doesn’t prevent victims’ families from petitioning, court officials will have a hard time keeping their jobs.

In this case, the court has been kidnapped—and, at a deeper level, that means the judicial system has been kidnapped—by the petitioning system. And once the judicial system has been kidnapped, the natural balance of the law inevitably becomes imbalanced. In this case, specifically, this sort of kidnapping resulted in two clear errors by the Pingdingshan intermediate court:

The first error was to violate a basic principle of adjudication in China: “taking facts as the basis and the law as criterion.”

If a suspect is sentenced to death without conclusive evidence, this means that every day each of us has the potential to become a murderer. But the Pingdingshan intermediate court was able to get a party to the case to write the following letter of guarantee and openly included it in the case file: If the suspect can be sentenced to life imprisonment or above, preferably the death sentence, then [we] guarantee not to petition any more. This ridiculous “death sentence guarantee” obviously resulted from the victim’s relatives’ continuous petitioning and judicial personnel going beyond the law to take “calming petitions” and “maintaining stability” into consideration. With the law no longer the sole criterion, the case was artificially made more complex.

In fact, more than two months after the relative signed the letter of guarantee, the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court did, in fact, sentence the suspect to death. Considering that a higher court subsequently annulled the death sentence based on insufficient evidence, it is clear that the death sentence in this case was imposed without enough evidence and that the primary factor of consideration at the time of sentencing was not only “taking facts as the basis and the law as criterion” but, rather, preventing the victim’s relatives from further petitioning.

The second error was to violate the basic principle of the presumption of innocence in criminal cases.

Since revision of the Criminal Procedure Law in 1996, the presumption of innocence has become clear in the law. Presumption of innocence means that an acquittal must be made if there is insufficient evidence to prove the existence of a crime. An example of the presumption of innocence is the ultimate acquittal in America’s famous trial of the century, the [O.J.] “Simpson case.”

In this case against criminal suspect Li Huailiang, multiple findings of insufficient evidence should have meant his acquittal and release long ago, but to this day he has been in custody for more than 10 years. The court, which specializes in adjudication, surely understands the concept of presumption of innocence, but this case has become a hot potato precisely because everyone is clear that Li should have been acquitted and released long ago. The moment he is acquitted, huge amounts of state compensation will be involved, and this case could become the “sequel to the Zhao Zuohai case.” And whether the court acquits, the procuratorate retracts its indictment, or the public security organ drops the case, it will involve the assignment of responsibility to legal institutions and concerned officials—and no one wants to take on that responsibility. [This has] caused the case to become a ball, being kicked around by each institution for more than a decade.

Although the court’s errors are obvious, if you look farther behind these errors you see that in requiring the victim’s relatives to sign a “death sentence guarantee,” the court appears to be trying to “calm petitions.” But, in fact, their actions are counterproductive and do more harm than good. When the court, sitting beneath the national emblem and armed with the scales [of justice], itself strays from the law and makes a party to a case sign an extralegal guarantee (or, if you like, application) in order to “calm petitions,” it might allow a small group or individual officials to avoid risk, but it sacrifices rule of law and devalues public trust in the judicial process. (The author is a lawyer in Guangzhou.)