In the United States, men and women sentenced to death typically await execution in “death row” sections of state and federal prisons. Due to complex and time-consuming appeals procedures, that wait can be quite long, averaging roughly 15 years, according to government statistics. This has led to arguments that the “death row phenomenon”—execution after extended delay under the harsh regime applied to condemned prisoners—constitutes cruel and inhumane punishment outlawed under international law.
Though China continues to make liberal use of the death penalty—executing more people than the rest of the world combined—the Chinese public is less aware of “death row.” In part, this is because individuals are not transferred to prisons but remain in detention centers during the period between sentencing and execution. There, they are often housed alongside other detainees rather than being segregated into special units. People sentenced to death often stand out, however, because of the shackles on their hands and feet.
Another reason why China is not typically thought to have a “death row” is because people spend relatively less time awaiting execution. Though there can be lengthy delays while cases bounce back and forth between intermediate courts of first instance and provincial courts of appeal, the wait becomes much shorter once the death sentence is sent to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) for review and approval.
Just how long or short this wait is remains shrouded in the cloak of secrecy that surrounds many other aspects of the death penalty in China. More detail has become available since the SPC started routinely publishing review decisions on its website in July 2013. The court still has quite a way to go in terms of disclosing information about capital punishment, but even the rather limited information it publishes provides some insight into opaque territory.
As a demonstration, Dui Hua recently reviewed roughly 500 SPC review decisions in an attempt to answer a surprisingly complicated question: How long do Chinese “death row” prisoners wait between the time their sentences are approved by the SPC and execution?
In all, these decisions concerned 525 individuals and were handed down between April 2011 and November 2015. Most of the decisions were from 2013–2015, with 2014 accounting for more than half of the total (see table below). The SPC rejected the death sentences given to only 11 individuals, leaving 514 facing execution.
|No. of individuals w/ sentences reviewed
|Death penalty rejected
|Execution publicly reported
It can be assumed that all of these individuals have been or will be executed, but in order to confirm exact dates, Dui Hua drew upon public execution reports. Doing so, Dui Hua was able to confirm the executions of 102 of the 514 individuals whose death sentences were approved by the SPC. In other words, no public record of any execution could be found for 80 percent of those whose sentences received final approval. An even smaller fraction of those whose executions were logged by Dui Hua have had their court decisions made public on the SPC website.
Based on Dui Hua analysis of the SPC decisions, China’s average “death row” prisoner can expect to wait roughly two months from the time the court approves their death sentence to the time of execution. But this period can vary considerably, with a small handful of people waiting more than 200 days and others waiting less than a week. Based on our sample, the median length of time on “death row” was 50 days.
This suggests that there is often a gap between the time that the SPC finishes its review and the time that highest court’s president signs a warrant of execution. This is clear because, under the Criminal Procedure Law, courts are required to carry out the death penalty within seven days of receiving such a warrant. The only statutory grounds for altering this strict timeline are when: 1) there is evidence of a possible error in the original judgment; 2) the person sentenced to death provides evidence of other crimes or performs other acts of major meritorious service that could result in leniency; or 3) the person sentenced to death is discovered to be pregnant.
The speed with which execution is carried out may be associated with certain individuals or crimes. For example, all 16 Uyghurs in the sample had their executions for terrorist activity carried out between five and nine days after the SPC approved their sentences. This means that warrants for execution had to have been issued more or less simultaneously with the court’s decision to approve capital punishment. The wait was also very brief for Xu Maiyong (eight days) and Liu Han (13 days). Xu was the former vice-mayor of Hangzhou who was executed for corruption in 2011. Liu was a politically connected business figure executed in 2015 for allegedly leading an organized crime syndicate in Sichuan.
In fact, the timing of executions may be tied to the social and political value of their publicity. Most of the Uyghurs were executed after region-wide mass rallies were covered widely in the national press in 2014 in an apparent attempt to show government resolve to combat violent terrorism. The April 2014 execution of Wang Yunsheng, only five days after SPC approval of his death sentence for murdering a doctor, appears to have been timed to coincide with the release of a judicial opinion on stricter punishment for crimes against medical practitioners.
Timeliness can also mean longer periods in custody. People who commit drug offenses sometimes wait for weeks or even months after their sentences have been approved, apparently in order for their execution to herald the “International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking” commemorated on June 26.
These cases are relatively easy to single out precisely because reporting on the death penalty in China is very selective and incomplete. Most cases receive no publicity at all, while others are used to send messages to the public. By virtue of being reported in some way, the executions reviewed here are more likely to have been carried out according to a schedule not simply determined by the judicial process. Were China to report information about death penalty cases more routinely, it would be possible to test the results of this dataset and learn more about the final days on China’s “death row.”