A Lost Decade
The overturning of a number of wrongful convictions that led to innocent people being jailed, sometimes for decades, has thrown a harsh spotlight on the Chinese police’s routine use of torture to extract false confessions
On March 26, when the Zhejiang People’s High Court overturned the rape and murder convictions of 49-year-old Zhang Gaoping and his nephew, 38-year-old Zhang Hui, both men had already served 10 years of their life sentences.
Upon hearing the ruling, Zhang Hui burst into tears. His uncle, stony-faced, told the apologetic presiding judge that China needs institutions and laws to prevent such miscarriages of justice.
“Today, you may be judges and officials, but your offspring may not,” Zhang Gaoping told the court. “Without effective institutions and mechanisms, they could be wrongfully jailed as we were, haunted by the terror of execution. Please remember that.”
The Zhang case has been seized upon by public critics of the methods employed by the Chinese police, particularly the lack of an effective mechanism to guard against false convictions and forced confessions obtained through torture. The Zhangs’ acquittal was only made possible by the efforts of the convicted men and their families, as well as widespread support from lawyers and officials. The local authorities that had secured the initial conviction, by contrast, were far from keen to expose their own failings in overturning such a high-profile ruling.
The Zhangs’ ordeal began on the night of May 18, 2003, when the two men, then working as truck drivers, offered a ride to a fellow villager, a 17-year-old girl named Wang Dong.
The Zhangs dropped Wang in downtown Hangzhou, the provincial capital, where she intended to hail a cab to a relative’s home. The next morning, her naked body was found in a drainage ditch in a Hangzhou suburb. The two truckers, as the last people to see Wang alive, were immediately arrested as suspects, despite there being no physical evidence that they were involved in the murder.
According to Zhang Gaoping, both he and his nephew were interrogated for seven days, during which they were deprived of sleep, burned with cigarettes, beaten and starved. When torture failed to produce a confession, the police sent them back to a detention center where they were assaulted and tortured by other detainees, before signing makeshift “confessions” prepared for them by inmates in the pocket of the police.
Even though forensic investigators found DNA belonging to an unidentified third party under the fingernails of the victim, these false confessions were all the police needed to secure a conviction, and they terminated the investigation, charging the Zhangs with rape and murder.
On February 2004, Zhang Hui and Zhang Gaoping were sentenced to death and life imprisonment respectively by a Hangzhou court. On appeal, these sentences were changed to death with a two-year reprieve (in China typically commuted to life imprisonment), and 15 years in jail.
Fight for Freedom
When serving their sentences in a prison in remote Xinjiang, the Zhangs continued to fight to overturn their convictions. In 2005, Zhang Gaoping saw a criminal trial on TV, during which a taxi driver named Gou Haifeng was charged with raping and murdering a young woman in Hangzhou. He was struck by how many details were similar to those in the Wang Dong case, and attempted to contact Zhejiang judicial authorities to request that the investigation be re-opened and DNA tests run, but received no reply.
However, Zhang’s appeal caught the attention of Zhang Biao (no relation to Zhang Gaoping), a prison official charged with handling inmate complaints. After reviewing Zhang’s case, Zhang Biao noticed that out of 26 listed pieces of evidence in the trial transcript, 25 were circumstantial, with the only witness testimony being that of an inmate named Yuan Lianfang, who, according to Zhang Gaoping, had tortured him and his nephew into signing their confessions. Yuan had received a reduced sentence in return for securing confessions from his fellow inmates.
Zhang Biao told NewsChina that the use of other inmates as enforcers and informers was common in China’s jails. By collaborating with the police, inmates can easily have sentences reduced or even commuted.
In 2008, the acquittal of Ma Tingxin, whose murder conviction had also been solely based on Yuan Lianfang’s testimony, offered new hope to Zhang Gaoping and his nephew. Zhang Biao, however, lacked sufficient evidence to prove that the Zhangs had not committed the crime and thus found it difficult to challenge the Zhejiang verdict. Only after he wrote a personal letter to Chen Yunlong, the chief prosecutor of Zhejiang Province, in 2009, did the Zhejiang authorities begin responding to their appeals.
A DNA screening by Hangzhou police in 2011 found that the DNA traces found under victim Wang Dong's fingernails matched that of Gou Haifeng, the taxi driver executed in 2005 after being convicted of a separate murder, just as Zhang Gaoping had suspected.
After overturning its previous verdict, the Zhejiang provincial police released an official apology to the two men. Calling their acquittal an example of “progress” in China’s legal system, Xu Ding’an, deputy chief of the Zhejiang provincial police, pledged a full investigation into the apparent police errors that had led to the wrongful convictions.
Ten years in jail have made it impossible for Zhang and his nephew to resume their old lives. Zhang Gaoping’s wife, who he had last seen four months pregnant, had aborted his baby and divorced him. His two daughters had dropped out of school, and his elderly mother had died in 2009. Battling failing health, Zhang has given up any notion of rebuilding his now-rundown village home in Anhui Province, or resuming his work as a truck driver.
As for Zhang Hui, his fiancee had disappeared, and his father had bankrupted his household with fruitless attempts to secure his release.
The case of the Zhangs is but one of several wrongful convictions exposed this year, and many victims suffered much longer than a decade before their cases were redressed.
This January, also in Zhejiang, the provincial high court announced that it was re-opening two robbery and murder cases dating back to 1995, involving five suspects, four of whom had been sentenced to death with two years’ reprieve and one to life imprisonment (See “The Wrong Men,” NewsChina, April 2013). All five men were released “on parole” for the duration of the investigation. By the time Wang Jianping, the last of the five, left his cell on April 28, all of the men had served 17 years in jail.
On February 6 in Hebei Province, Zhao Yanjin, a female villager, was released after being cleared of a charge of murdering her neighbor’s daughter in 2001. Although she was acquitted in early 2011, she was kept in prison for another 20 months by local authorities to “prevent social instability.”
On April 25 in Henan Province, Li Huailiang, a 47-year-old villager, had a conviction overturned for the 2001 rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, also due to a lack of evidence.
In each case, the newly-freed men and women claimed they had been tortured by police or hired thugs in order to force them to sign false confessions.
On May 17, the Zhejiang authorities announced that the Zhangs would receive a total of 2.11 million yuan (US$356,000) in compensation for their ordeal, the highest amount ever paid to victims of wrongful imprisonment in China, though the sum falls far short of the 7.02 million yuan (US$1.13m) demanded by the victims themselves.
After publicly admitting in March that the use of torture to obtain false confessions is common in cases of wrongful imprisonment, Qi Qi, presiding judge of the Zhejiang Provincial High Court, said in an interview with the State-controlled Legal Daily that the pursuit of a 100 percent solve rate for major criminal cases is a major reason for widespread police abuses in China.
Tackling this problem at the source, Qi claimed, would mean that law enforcement authorities would have to change some of their most fundamental doctrines.
“Instead of ‘not letting a single criminal get away,’ the judicial system should devote itself to the rightful objective of pursuing justice,” he said.
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Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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