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Home >> Opinion
UPDATED: 15:28, April 05, 2005
Return of "murdered wife" calls China's judicial system in question
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She Xianglin, 39, a former security guard in central China's Hubei Province who had spent 11 years in jail after being convicted of murdering his wife, was released this month, following the reappearance of the supposedly dead woman.

Zhang Zaiyu, She's wife, went missing in 1994. At around the same time, police found an unidentifiable female body in a reservoir near She's residence. With no DNA test or other evidence, local police believed that the body was Zhang's, and suspected that She was the murderer.

After several rounds of interrogation, She confessed. The People's Court of Jingshan County and the Intermediate People's Court of Jingzhou Prefecture in Hubei both sentenced She to death with immediate execution at the first and the second trials, based on evidence provided by local police and She's confession.

Luckily enough, the Higher People's Court of Hubei, after seeing "quite a few doubtful points" in the case, ordered a retrial which changed the sentence on She to 15 years in prison.


The return of She's "killed wife" attracted wide attention from China's legal community.

In an exclusive interview with Xinhua, Li Guifang, vice director of the Beijing-based Criminal Committee of the All-China Lawyers Association, said She's case demonstrates the failure of the entire local legal system, which consists of the police bureau, procuratorates and courts.

"The police should bear the brunt of the responsibility, because they had falsely identified the body, the major evidence in this case, and probably extorted a confession through torture," said Li.

The local procuratorate, or the prosecuting organ, and courts at different levels are also to blame, he said. Although having found some discrepancies between the dead body and Zhang in figures and clothes, the local procuratorate still started legal proceedings instead of conducting further investigation. The local courts failed to clarify the truth of the case even after the retrial.

To the dismay of the legal experts, She's case is far from being exceptional under the country's flawed criminal justice system.

Nie Shubin, a young farmer in north China's Hebei Province, was executed in 1994 after being convicted of raping and murdering a local woman. Earlier this year, however, a rape-and-murder suspect apprehended by police in central China's Henan Province confessed that he was the one who committed that heinous crime 11 years ago.

"Although strictly forbidden by law, forced confession has been common in many places in China because the police are often under great pressure from above to solve criminal cases," a law professor told Xinhua.

And defendants' right to legal counsel, also provided for by the country's criminal procedural law, has been denied by many police departments in practice, said Li Guifang of the lawyers association.

"If a lawyer had been appointed at the first place, the case might have gone differently," said Li while commenting on She's case.

Some police often block face-to-face interview between lawyer and criminal suspects, or only give a few minutes for them to talk before interrogation, Li said.

"From She's case, we can easily come to the conclusion that suspects' right to defense should be further respected and protected in the country," he added.

Li Guoguang, former vice president of the Supreme People's Court, was reluctant to comment on She's case, but said it was "very possible" for She to obtain official compensation according to China's State Compensation Law.


China's top law enforcement organs, such as the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security, are taking actions to reform the old justice system to minimize the possibility of convicting the innocent.

The Ministry of Public Security has initiated a nationwide campaign since 2004 to improve the policemen's capability of criminal investigation. The policemen were urged to strengthen their study of fundamental investigation knowledge, and improve their on-site investigation ability with the assistance of high-tech facilities, such as a DNA test.

Zhou Yongkang, minister of public security, also promised "a new police assessment system" will be established, under which any policeman who extorts confession by torture will "be severely dealt with".

The Supreme People's Court is now considering to retrieve the right to review death penalty from the provincial higher people's courts, so as to ensure a "fair and prudent" meting-out of capital punishment.

The supreme court will also increase its judges by 10 percent to handle the workload increase resulting from the review of all death penalty cases.

The Supreme People's Court, Supreme People's Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security have also issued a joint circular, urging judicial bodies across the nation to strictly follow the principle of presumption of innocence and protect the legitimate rights of all suspects.

As a result, 2,996 criminal suspects were released in line with the principle of presumption of innocence in 2004, the supreme court said.


Finally out of the prison, She told reporters that police had forced him to confess during the interrogation. "The police tortured me by not letting me sleep for ten days and finally made me leave my finger mark on the documents when I had almost lost consciousness," he said.

He said he never gave up his efforts of petition even when in prison, but though his mother and elder brother helped him air his grievances, he received no response at all.

She said he will demand compensation from the local courts and police according to the State Compensation Law.

She received a medical examination after his release, which showed he suffered from double-vision and a severe spine disease, which made him hardly able to sit. According to She, one of his fingers was also cut off during his imprisonment.

Lu Dingbo, the current vice-director of the Police Bureau of Jingshan County and the person who was in charge of the criminal investigation of She's case, expressed deep regret, but tried to defend himself by stating that there were no DNA examination facilities ten years ago.

"Otherwise, we could have compared the DNA of the female body with that of Zhang's mother, and it would have been possible to avoid the mistake," he claimed.

The local court said She's case would be retried later this week. At that time, She will receive a final, and hopefully fair judgment.

As to his "dead wife" Zhang Zaiyu, she fled 11 years ago due to poverty and disappointment in her marriage. She met a farmer in east China's Shandong Province, married him and gave birth to a boy. Zhang said that while she was away she "had no idea" that her first husband was in prison, and that she came back simply because she missed her daughter and her hometown.

"I don't want to see her again," the wronged husband said. "She broke my heart and ruined my life."

Source: Xinhua

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