Jiabao Du

Failing Trust in China’s Courts: Is Wang Shujin the Last Straw?

Wang Shujin at his most recent trial (Via Weibo/Fair use)
Wang Shujin speaks at the Higher Court of Handan City, Hebei Province on June 25 (Via Weibo/Fair use)

At 9:00 am on the morning of June 25, Wang Shujin was escorted into the Higher Court of Handan City, Hebei province. More than 200 seats in the courtroom’s public gallery were occupied. In 2005, the 46-year-old man was arrested on charges of raping and killing three women in 1994 and 1995. In 2007, he was sentenced to death.

What makes Wang’s case unique, however, is that he insists his guilt in a fourth murder, but prosecutors have sought to invalidate his confession and affirm his innocence. Scholars say Wang’s trial will test the impartiality and integrity of China’s judicial system, as well as the public confidence in the judiciary. The verdict, nearly 8 years in coming, has been deferred once again.

The crime to which Wang Shujin has now confessed was thought solved long ago. Another man, Nie Shubin, was executed for raping and murdering the woman in a corn field in Shijiazhuang City, Hebei Province. Wang Shujin has claimed he was the real murderer and is appealing his death sentence, asking for leniency owing to his confession to a fourth murder case. The greatest controversy of the trial is whether Wang Shujin in fact killed the woman — meaning Nie Shubin was grievously wronged — or was just trying to reduce his sentence. According to Article 68 of China’s Criminal Law, any criminal who not only voluntarily surrenders after committing the crime but also performs major meritorious services shall be given a mitigated punishment or be exempted from punishment.

The courts have repeatedly dismissed Wang’s confession and invalidated his appeals upon a finding that Wang’s descriptions of what he said he did deviated significantly from crucial evidence found at the crime scene. The official Sina microblog of the Hebei Provincial High Court listed the contradictions: “1. The neck of the victim was tangled with a floral shirt and Wang Shujin did not mention that in his confession. 2. The victim was smothered while Wang Shujin said he strangled and trampled her to death. 3. The times of murder do not match. 4. The heights of the victim do not match either.”

Prosecutors argued that Wang Shujin was able to provide some accurate details about the murder only because he worked in a factory near the corn field, and so was familiar with the surroundings.

Rage ignites

Since 2005, when Wang was first arrested and confessed to the murder, the trail has been highly anticipated. He has been seeking a reduced sentence since the first trial on March 12, 2007.

On February 22, shortly after the Chinese New Year, law professor Xu Xin wrote on Weibo: “In the new year, we will stick to Nie Shubin’s case and never surrender新的一年,继续死磕聂树斌案.” The tweet was forwarded more than 290,000 times. Denunciation of the courts was prevalent among the over 30,000 comments. The absurdity of the trial has generated disappointment, complaints and exasperation among the public, scholars, lawyers and public intellectuals.

The Oriental Morning Post, a newspaper based in Shanghai, summarized the trial in just three lines: “Wang Shujin: I killed the person. Defenders: Yes he did. Prosecutors: No, he did not王书金案休庭。三句话总结一下上午的庭审。 王书金:人是我杀的。辩护人:是他。检方:不是他。.” The sarcastic post was forwarded more than 4,000 times and imitated the Weibo account of The People’s Daily, the online presence of the Party mouthpiece paper.

Zhu Zhiyong, a columnist, tweeted: “The Hebei prosecutors reject Wang Jinshu’s confession outright. It is the flagrant blaspheming of the law and the darkest moment in the history of the judiciary. Jurisdiction should be handed over to another court聂树斌案凸显良心发现与司法黑暗的尖锐对峙!河北检方在真凶王金书良知发现,聂案必将司法当局草芥人命的真相大白天下之际,悍然否定王金书的认罪事实,这是对司法正义的公开亵渎,是司法史上最黑暗的时刻!河北司法当局涉嫌制造冤狱,此案本应移交管辖权。强烈要求全国人大成立司法调查组,揭开黑幕!.” He called on the National People’s Congress to set up a judicial investigation team.

Even the criminal Wang Shujin, convicted of killing and raping three other women, seemed to be more popular among netizens than the Hebei court that was determined to affirm his innocence. A popular Weibo user named Writer Tianyou hailed Wang Shujin as a warrior fighting for the reputation of an executed man he never met, while describing the prosecutors as devils.

Profound problems

Beyond simple indignation, the trial has generated discussion of the deeper aspects of the case among some prominent figures.

Xu Xin, a professor of law at the Beijing Institute of Technology, published an article a day before the trial entitled Expect Judicial Justice in the Name of Mothers, expressing great admiration and compassion for Nie Shubin’s mother, Zhang Huanzhi. He wrote, “Zhang Huanzhi is struggling for the redemption of the judiciary in the name of mothers. To overturn Nie Shubin’s wrongful conviction is not only to give an explanation to Nie’s family but also to fulfill a promise to all Chinese mothers that the judiciary will not wrongly kill their children.她,以母亲的名义,呼唤中国司法的自我救赎。她的眼泪,蠃得了每一位孩子的支持;她的行动,代表了每一位母亲的诉求……期待在王金书案二审之后,最高法院尽快落实聂树斌案再审的启动……这,不止是给聂母及家人一个说法,更是向中国所有的母亲承诺,司法不会冤杀每一位母亲的孩子,每一位母亲的孩子都享有生命安全、人身自由和财产保障等基本人权。万一出现冤屈,司法将及时纠错,给母亲以迟来的安慰。最高法院,该出手了,请把握这次司法自我救赎的机会。

Why was it so difficult to launch the retrial? Who was blocking the proceedings? Xu Xin gave an answer:

Firstly, the High Court, which was responsible for Nie Shubin’s final sentencing, could not possibly rectify its own wrongdoings. Additionally, this case involved police, prosecutors, a Political Committee, a Party Committee and the administration. If it was overturned, all of the parties would have to be held accountable. Many people in power had to collude to block the proceedings of the retrial. The deepest reason is that China’s court system is not an independent entity, and it is subordinate to the administrative department. The court and procuratorate act as branches or extensions of the Party and government一起明显的冤案,启动再审为何如此艰难?是谁在阻挠程序的启动?作为当年制造冤案的终审法院,河北高院的自查无疑是“当事人担任自己的法官”。事实也证明,它不可能自我纠错。非但不纠错,甚至还在设法“补正”案卷,以化解将来可能的责任。此案还涉及地方各级公安、检察、政法委,甚至党委和政府。倘若聂案平反,很可能需要问责。而当年参与办案或过问指示的相关人员及领导仍活跃于当地政法机关,有人甚至担任要职。于是,当年“相互配合”、“联合办案”的机构和人员,自然结成了同盟,“相互配合”地进行“联合阻挠”……当下中国,司法公信岌岌可危,民众对法治信心殆尽。甚至可以说,中国无司法。司法与行政几乎毫无区分,法院、检察院越来越像党委和政府的一个部门,政法委的工作机构,公安局的延伸。.

Some scholars contesting the proceedings in other ways. He Weifang, a highly respected constitutional scholar at Peking University, commented on the verdicts: “I think Wang Shujin has performed major meritorious services because he insists on taking responsibility for a forth crime, and he has thwarted the movers and shakers from covering up the wrongful conviction他在司法机关放弃追究其一起犯罪的情况下,又提起上诉,不依不饶地要求追究,让权势力图掩饰重大冤狱的企图无从得逞,我认为是重大立功.”

He also asked, “Why has the procuratorate deferred the presenting of the evidence? Why couldn’t this have happened at some point during the past eight years? What evidence was presented in this trial? Did any witnesses attend to be questioned by the lawyers? Most importantly, was the court neutral? How opaque何以河北检察机关要拖延八年时间,不在王书金一审时就把证据呈现出来,那么王不就无法得逞,就难以再活八年了吗?!八年了,其间什么事情不能发生?本次审理有怎样的呈堂证据?有无证人出庭作证并接受律师质询?更重要的,法院是否中立?费解啊!!”

Some declined to judge whether Wang Shujin or Nie Shubin was the guilty party, arguing that suspects must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Mao Lixin, an expert in criminal procedure law, elaborated on this point:

There is not adequate evidence to sustain Wang’s guilt or Nie’s conviction. Under these circumstances, the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ should apply to the trial of Wang and Nie. The court did not convict Wang of the Shijiazhuang’s murder now, nor should it have convicted Nie then. The sentencings in Nie’s first and second trial were too simplistic and rough to tolerate. Regardless of historical reasons, it reflected the nation’s perfunctory and arbitrary attitude toward its citizens’ lives. Only by implementing the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ can the criminal judiciary make substantial improvements and establish rule of law现有证据,无法确证王书金就是聂案的‘真凶’,这是可以预料的。毕竟案件发生在18年前,王的记忆也许有偏差,实物证据也多已灭失,单凭被告人口供又不能定案。但这并不意味着聂案就一定不是错案,只要聂案本身的证据存在问题,未达到确实充分、排除合理怀疑之程度,就不该定罪枪决……在证据不足的情况下,根据‘疑罪从无’原则,对王书金供述的石家庄强奸案不予起诉,是正确的选择。但同样的原则和标准,也应适用于聂树斌案……聂案的一、二审判决书,简单、粗糙到令人无法容忍的程度,虽然有着时代的原因,但也能看出国家对待公民生命的草率与专横。聂案再审,不能再寄希望于‘真凶落网’。既然能够以‘疑罪从无’的态度对待王书金的自供,就应当以同样的态度对待‘聂树斌案再审’……中国的冤案平反,不能再单纯地依赖‘亡者归来’、‘真凶落网’等小概率事件。试想,又能有多少蒙冤者能够拥有这样的幸运?必须回到案件本身的事实、证据和法律上来,坚决贯彻‘疑罪从无’。只有如此,刑事司法才取得实质性进步,树立起法治的新标杆。.

Nie Shubin’s case, a symbol of injustice

It is not hard to understand the landslide of rebuke of the court and support for Nie Shubin’s innocence, given what happened to the Nie family and the extraction of Nie Shubin’s confession by torture.

According to a lengthy report from Southern Weekly, Nie Shubin was 20 in 1994. By all accounts, he was introverted and honest. On September 14, several policemen arrived at his home, where Zhang Huanzhi was working and Nie Shubin had not been at home since the night before. The police told Zhang that Nie Shubin was suspected of committing a crime and was apprehended the previous night.

The police did not fully explain the charges during repeated visits, and the family remained unaware of the charges against Nie Shubin; they even held a joyful wedding for Nie’s sister as they had earlier planned.

One day, Nie Shubin’s father, Nie Shusheng, received the arrest warrant at the factory for which he worked. The words claiming Nie Shubin was convicted of murdering and raping shocked him immensely. Asked by the police to sign his name on it, Nie Shusheng snarled: “No! My son is not the kind of person who would do such a thing!” “Sign it,” the police said, “Your son has confessed.”

On October 26, the Shijiazhuang Daily published an article detailing Nie Shubin’s crime. The author claimed Nie Shubin was riding bicycle when he was apprehended at the scene of the crime: “He admitted to nothing but molesting the woman at first. But with the police’s ingenious use of psychological methods and evidence, the barbaric perpetrator confessed to his crime after a week of interrogation.”

From Nie Shubin’s capture to his execution in April, 1995, Zhang Huanzhi only saw her son once.

After the execution, Zhang Huanzhi began the long journey of petition and appeal. Nie Shusheng could not accept his son’s conviction and death, and attempted suicide twice. He has been bedridden and paralyzed since 1996.

In 2005, Wang Shujin was arrested and confessed to four cases of murder and rape, including that of Nie Shubin’s case, stunning the entire country and the Nie family.

However, this twist of fate has not, as of yet, affected Nie Shubin’s case. In an interview with the Oriental Morning Post on June 25, Zhang Huanzhi said she has gone to the High Court of Hebei Province every month for the past eight years to appeal to overturn her son’s sentence and she has always been told to “wait for notice at home.”

The public and legal scholars suspect that Nie Shubin was wronged because the courts have been delaying their response. Nie Shubin was convicted based solely on his confession – which many believe was forced. Aside from his oral confession, prosecutors did not prove his guilt with witnesses or physical evidence such as fingerprints, blood, or semen.

In recent years, many staggering injustices similar to Nie’s case have come to light. In part due to assuming suspects are guilty and requiring that their innocence be proven, instead of the other way around, Chinese courts have maintained a very high conviction rate – 99.9% in 2009, according to official statistics – so it is no surprise that some of those who stand trial are wrongly convicted.

In March 2013, Zhang Hui and Zhang Gaoping were released from jail after serving 10 years for being convicted of raping and killing a girl whom they gave a free ride. In 2011, a famous lawyer named Zhu Mingyong and a respected prosecutor named Zhang Biao succeeded in soliciting the High Court in Hangzhou City in Zhejiang Province to reinvestigate and retry the case. It was found that the DNA left in the victim’s nails matched the DNA of a criminal who was convicted of rape and murder and executed in 2005. The Zhangs said they were tortured for multiple consecutive days and nights to confess.

In May 2010, Zhao Zuohai was released from jail after serving 11 years because the victim named Zhao Zhenshang whom he was convicted of murdering in 1999 returned. It was found that the victim’s body had been misidentified by the family as Zhao Zhenshang.

In May 2005, after serving 11 years, She Xianglin was acquitted because his wife, whom he was charged with murdering in 1995, went back home for a visit. She had moved to another province and remarried. In April 1994, the police found a body and determined it was She Xianglin’s wife and that he had killed her. She Xianglin said he was tortured for ten days and ten nights.

Other well-known injustices include Du Peiwu’s case, Wu Daquan’s, Hutengjile’s, Zhang Zhenfeng’s, and Teng Xingshan’s. These and other cases continue to erode the Chinese people’s belief in their judiciary and government. Wrote Xu Xin, “Nie Shubin’s case might be the last straw that causes the judiciary to collapse聂案或有可能成为司法崩溃的最后一根稻草。.”

Zhang Huanzhi has said that she looks forward to the trial, scheduled to take place , but worries that justice will be deferred again and again, and that her son’s name will not be cleared before she dies. Though the verdicts have continued to disappoint, she has stated: “I will take good care of myself and conserve my strength to keep on appealing现在我的任务就是好好养身体,也不多生气了,留点力气好再为儿子的事奔走。.”

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Jiabao Du

Jiabao Du is a junior majoring in journalism at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou City, China. She is interning at a magazine called the Southern People Weekly at present.