For lawyers Xia Lin and Xia Nan, their 20-hour train journey from Hubei province to Beijing last week was both a relief and a frustration. "At least we get to have dinner with our colleagues," Xia Nan said in transit. "Sadly, it won't be a celebration dinner."
The pair was on their way back to their Huayi Law Firm from the city of Enshi, where they had planned to defend Deng Yujiao, the young hotel worker who stabbed an official to death on May 10.
Dubbed "heroes" by the hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens paying close attention to the high-profile case, Xia Lin had been keeping an Internet blog to update the net-savvy public on every new development.
But their involvement came to an abrupt end on May 23, when they were sacked and excluded from proceedings by the suspect's mother, Zhang Shumei.
It was another twist in this intriguing case, which started when Deng Yujiao, 21, killed Deng Guida (no relation) and injured Huang Dezhi, both township officials, with a fruit knife at the Xiongfeng Hotel's leisure center in Yesanguan, a township in Badong county.
A third official, Deng Zhongjia, 45, the vice-director of the office of business delegations for Yesanguan, was also present during the fatal stabbing. He was cleared of any involvement by the police, but was later fired from his job.
A report from the Enshi public security bureau this week said Deng Yujiao had refused to have a bath with the men, who then pushed, shoved and verbally insulted her, and said the stabbings were an act of self-defense with "excessive force".
The woman surrendered to police and was initially detained on suspicion of "voluntary manslaughter". She was then admitted for psychiatric observation at Youfu Hospital in Enshi after investigators found "anti-insomia" medication in her bag at the scene, the public security bureau said.
Xia Lin and Xia Nan, who are not related, became involved in the case on May 21, when they visited Deng in detention and met her mother, Zhang. Two days later their contract was terminated.
As well as the lawyers, Badong has also attracted dozens of Internet users determined to uncover the truth, with some even trying to launch a netizen investigation team, such as the one set up in February this year to probe the death of Li Qiaoming, who was beaten to death in detention in Yunnan province during a game of "hide and seek".
Blogs and online forums have been overwhelmed with comments calling for justice. But some netizens have gone beyond that.
After seeing footage of Deng Yujiao strapped to a bed, screaming "Dad, they beat me" on Enshi Prefecture TV, Wu Gan, a Wuhan blogger on Sina.com, visited Youfu Hospital and gained access to Deng after telling staff he was there to find out if the girl had been tortured.
After meeting her, he published a photograph of Deng online on May 19 sitting in bed, her wrists unbound, looking calm and composed.
Xia Lin and Xia Nan prepared a bill of indictment against Huang, 41, another vice-director at the office of business delegates, who was sacked and stripped of the Communist Party of China membership, accusing him of sexually assaulting Deng.
But when they went to submit it to Badong county police on May 25, accompanied by camera-carrying journalists and netizens, they claim officers avoided them before it was finally accepted.
It was just one many things during the case that seemed to upset Internet users.
On May 23, the government announced the mother had sacked Xia Lin and Xia Nan because they had "denied the obvious" and "claimed Deng was raped".
At 9 am, Zhang vigorously denied the claim. But at 4 pm she issued a statement that read "almost word for word" with the government's, said Xia Lin, adding that he has been unable to contact her since.
For his blog entry on May 24, Xia Lin wrote a detailed reconstruction of the events that led up to the stabbings on May 10, based on conversations with Deng Yujiao. In it, he accused Deng Guida and Huang of attempted rape.
It received 45,000 visitors and almost 2,500 comments, and was republished in thousands of blogs, forums and media publications.
At 9 pm that day, the Badong county authority announced Zhang had hired two local lawyers - Wang Shaopeng of the Wuhan-based Li Feng Law Firm, and Liu Gang of Chengye Law Firm, Yichang - to defend Deng Yujiao.
The move sparked more activity online, this time including a fake blog on sina.com.cn, set up to look as though lawyer Wang had written it. In it, the author argued Deng was guilty.
When it was also suggested Wang was a legal advisor to the Hubei government, the blog was lambasted by netizens.
It was shortly followed by an entry containing the personal details of both lawyers, including their home addresses, phone numbers and emails. The blog was later closed down.
China Daily was unable to reach the lawyers by phone. A receptionist at Wang's office said: "I haven't seen him or been able to reach him since he took the case."
Netizens also released the personal details of Deng Guida, 44, who was director of business promotion office for Yesanguan, Deng Zhongjia and Huang. Their families are believed to have gone into hiding.
Deng Yujiao was released from detention on May 26. Days later, the police issued a statement saying she had used self-defense with "excessive force" and her case had been passed on to the local procurator's office. No formal charges have yet been made.
Netizens continue to watch avidly as the case progresses, but their growing involvement in high-profile cases such as Deng's has helped coin a new phrase: public judges.
Not content with being able to just air their opinion online, netizens now demand more information and are ever-quick to jump to conclusions when it comes to questions of guilt.
In the case of Hu Bin, a 20-year-old man who hit and killed a college graduate while racing his Mitsubishi Evo against friends in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, last month, web users immediately demanded he be charged with "endangering public security" before police had concluded their full investigation into the cause of the tragic accident.
"The public don't have the right to legally judge anyone," said a Legal Daily editorial recently. "Public opinions may sometimes conflict with the rationality of law.
"The media is the source of the public's knowledge, but it sometimes reports unsubstantiated details. In the course of law, details differentiate guilty and not guilty, even life and death."
Zhou Zhe, a professor with China Youth College for Political Science in Beijing, told China Daily: "I think it is a good thing netizens are taking part in public inquiries. They have the right to express their point of view.
"But the government must make independent judgments and only adapt what is reasonable, and never lose its impartiality."
Zhou suggested netizens should not be regarded as a singular group of people, adding: "There could be professionals who see things from their position, government officials who wish to disperse rumors or ordinary people.
"Online or otherwise, people should act within the law."Source: China Daily