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Taiwan Verdict Exposes Death Penalty Dangers

TAIPEI, Sep 2 2012 (IPS) - 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.

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  • No Death Penalty

    this is a great news!

  • Hsiao Min

    It’s a great story but I disagree with President Ma’s comment at the end of it. There are more cases of miscarriage of justice been brought to the public other than the Hsichih Trio, and all of them started with the false confession extracted in improper means. The judicial system relies heavily on the confession and ignore the scientific evidence, and the people rely heavily on what the court says.

  • Wendy

    A good read.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Something is missing, here.
    I see no evidence that there was any torture. Just allegations
    And Henry Lee Chang-yi concluded that “it is extremely likely that this case was committed by Wang Wen-hsiao alone.”
    That is one opinon, resulting in an “extremely likely”. Would another expert have found it “extremely likely” there was multiple assailants?

  • Tsungli

    Honestly, Taiwan’s judicial system is not qualified to sentence any person into capital punishment.

  • dmetaiwan

    In early trials, judges and prosecutors ignored and did not investigate the declarations by the trio that they had been tortured into confessing, but the growing realization (not to mention that torture by police during Taiwan`s four decade of authoritarian rule (ended only in the late 1980s) was commonplace, led to the reluctance of justice ministers to sign off on their executions. The Control Yuan investigation did uncover evidence of torture and other problems with the investigation and impeached a number of prosecutors and Hsichih bureau policemen. Henry Lee in 2008 conducted a detailed and highly sophisticated forensic study of the very small bedroom in which the murders took place. A 13-minute film provided for evidence to the Taiwan High Court in early 2009 was shown for the first time in public at a news conference after the final verdicts were announced Friday and was immensely convincing. A major problem mentioned by Lin Feng-cheng was that there is a huge gap between the forensic techniques employed by Lee and by Taiwan investigators that still exists.

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