Death Penalty Gets Tighter Scrutiny in China ; A Review of Cases by China's Supreme Court May Reduce the Potential for Wrongful Convictions

Article excerpt

The policemen investigating a murderous assault knew they didn't have enough evidence against their chief suspect, Li Jiuming, to hold up in court. So they decided to do what police here often do, according to Chinese lawyers: torture a confession out of him.

That false confession, presented four years ago to a court in Tangshan, 100 miles east of Beijing, earned Mr. Li, a prison administrator, a death sentence. But even as his lawyer was presenting an appeals judge with testimony that police interrogators had given Li electric shocks, beaten him, forced hot pepper-water up his nose, and made him drink water until it came out his ears, the real culprit was found.

Li was released. But his ordeal, and others like it, prompted China's Supreme Court last week to assume exclusive authority to review all death sentences, in a move that legal scholars say could reduce abuses in imposing the death penalty and potentially cut the number of people executed in China by as much as one-third.

The new law, in a country where the death penalty enjoys strong popular support, is "an important procedural step to prevent wrongful convictions," Supreme Court President Xiao Yang said, according to the official Xinhua news agency. The agency trumpeted the amendment as "the most important reform of capital punishment in China in more than two decades."

China is thought to execute more prisoners each year than the rest of the world's nations put together, though the statistics are secret. Amnesty International says China executed at least 1,770 people last year, but estimates the real figure to be far higher.

The new law "is very positive," says reformist legal scholar Liu Renwen. "It is a signal that our government will pay more and more attention to limiting the use of the death penalty."

Giving the Supreme Court final review authority will reduce the number of death sentences, analysts here say, because it is less vulnerable to outside pressure than lower courts.

Local tribunals, even provincial high courts, "are easily influenced by local authorities" says Chen Weidong, a professor at Beijing People's University Law School. "And local authorities like to use the death penalty because they think it is good for public security."

Zhu Aimin, the lawyer who defended Li against the trumped-up charges of attempted murder, says "very strong pressure from outside" was exerted in his case, though he is still reluctant to identify its exact source.

In 2004, official figures show, the Supreme Court overturned 94 of the 300 death sentences it reviewed, though last year that proportion dropped to about 11 percent.

The new amendment also removes a dangerous anomaly. Currently, 90 percent of death sentences are reviewed by the same provincial courts that heard the appeals, which are unlikely to change their own rulings. Supreme Court hearings will provide "another layer of protection," hopes Mr. …