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Thursday, January 19, 2017
- The end of Taiwan’s most controversial death penalty case this week has “punctured the myth that the judicial system never makes mistakes in death penalty cases,” Judicial Reform Foundation (JRF) executive director Lin Feng-cheng told IPS.
A panel of three High Court judges overturned murder convictions and capital sentences Aug. 31 against the so-called ‘Hsichih Trio’ after 21 years of legal battles. Supporters of human rights and opponents of the death penalty gathered at the Taiwan High Court Criminal Appeals building cheered after Su You-chen, chairman of the Chinese Association for Human Rights, announced the “not guilty” verdicts for Su Chien-ho, Chuang Lin-hsun and Liu Bin-lang.The case began on Mar. 23, 1991 when a couple, Wu Ming-han and his wife Yeh Ying-lan, living in Hsichih township near Taipei City were found robbed and murdered, having been stabbed 79 times.
On Aug. 13 1991, Wang Wen-hsiao, a neighbour then serving in Taiwan’s Marines, was detained and then formally arrested two days later, based on a fingerprint found at the murder scene.
Wang initially confessed to have conducted the killings alone, but police doubted that Wang could have killed the couple by himself.
During interrogations by Hsichih precinct police, Wang named three other 19-year-old associates, Su Chien-ho, Chuang Lin-hsun and Liu Bin-lang for helping him murder the couple after robbing their home and raping Yeh.
The three suspects confessed to the crimes to the police and were charged with murder under the Act for the Control and Punishment of Banditry at the time, which provided for mandatory death sentences.
Wang was convicted in military court and executed on Jan. 11, 1992 and never directly faced Su and the other two suspects.
After judges refused to accept their claims to have made false confessions under torture, Su, Liu and Chuang were convicted in the Shihlin district court on Feb. 18, 1992 and lost two appeals to the High Court before the Supreme Court finalised their guilty verdicts and imposed death sentences on Feb. 9, 1995.
Although they would normally have been executed within three days, then justice minister (and now president and ruling Chinese Nationalist Party chairman) Ma Ying-jeou refused to sign the execution orders, returning the case to the Supreme Court due to the lack of direct evidence.
The Control Yuan, Taiwan’s watchdog branch of government, launched a probe into the Su Chien-ho case in March 1995 that found numerous errors in the investigation and trial proceedings by the Hsichih police bureau, the Shihlin district court and the High Court.
The “Hsichih Trio” or “Su Chien-ho” case became the focus of a major global human rights campaign, and spurred the drive by Taiwan civil society groups to push for the abolition of the death penalty.
A turning point came in June 2008 when renowned criminologist Henry Lee Chang-yi undertook a detailed investigation of the crime scene and forensic data on behalf of the defendants and concluded that “it is extremely likely that this case was committed by Wang Wen-hsiao alone.”
“This critical forensic research came about because of civil society efforts and not the court,” Judicial Reform Foundation executive director Lin Feng-cheng told IPS. “It was only because this case attracted too much attention and even became the subject of an international campaign were we able to persuade Henry Lee to come here.”
Speaking for the trio, Su Chien-ho said “21 years of trials and retrials has turned us into middle-aged men and our youth is long gone, but we now only have feelings of gratitude and hope to return to normal lives.”
“Senior judicial officials continue to attempt to persuade society that the judicial system never makes mistakes and this myth has blinded many people, but the Su Chien-ho case is an example of a finalized death penalty verdict that was overturned and shown to be wrong,” the JRF spokesman told IPS.
“If their death penalty verdicts had been implemented, they would have been executed just like Chiang Kuo-ching” – an Air Force private wrongfully executed in August 1997 after confessing under torture to a rape-murder, said Lin. “This fact shows how frightening the death penalty truly is.”
President Ma, who as president has overseen the ending of a nearly five-year moratorium on the death penalty with nine executions, told reporters Aug. 31 that he hoped that there would never again be such a case and that there would no longer be cases in which confessions were obtained through improper means from suspects.