Judicial revision shows more caution over use of death penalty

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 December, 2008, 12:00am

Beijing is showing more caution in its use of capital punishment by issuing further judicial interpretations of its Criminal Procedural Law, detailing specific circumstances for suspending or overturning death penalties.

The interpretations issued by the Supreme People's Court that came into effect yesterday gave four cases in which death sentences could be deemed 'probably mistaken', Xinhua reported yesterday.

They are: if evidence of further crimes is found, if a fugitive accomplice is found, if the death penalty handed down to an accomplice is suspended or overturned, and other circumstances that might lead to wrongful verdicts.

The court said the purpose of the interpretations was 'to guarantee the standardised practice of terminating the execution of cases involving death penalties'.

'The explanation is not new legislation, but the detailed clarifications within it can help plug some loopholes in the procedure for carrying out death penalties,' said He Zehong , a criminal jurist at the court.

The current law cites three circumstances in which convicted criminals should be granted a stay of execution: if the convict is found to be pregnant, he/she has exposed other significant crimes, has won substantial acclaim through laudable deeds, or if the verdict is suspected of being 'probably mistaken' before the death penalty is imposed.

But the law had failed to specify in what conditions the verdicts could be rendered 'probably mistaken'.

The supreme court said cases must be immediately sent back to the court for further review if a death sentence was found to fall into one of the four categories deemed 'probably mistaken'.

A review would be carried out by a hearing group different from the original group if necessary, it said.

'From the new explanation, we can see that China is getting more cautious in dispensing the death penalty, which can be considered a step forward for the country,' said Qian Xuezhi , a criminal lawyer with Sam & Partners in Beijing.

The new explanation said that once a convicted criminal was certified as pregnant, the death verdict must be revoked. 'This means that a convicted criminal will be exempt from the death penalty, and this will hold even after she delivers the baby,' Mr He said. 'China's existing laws have made this stipulation already, the interpretations here just make a reconfirmation.'

Experts said the revision was important in that it could help stop wilful execution orders by lower courts.

'Some low-level courts sometimes command convicted women to have abortions before handing out a death penalty,' Mr Qian said. 'But now, the explanation specifies that an exemption of a pregnant woman from the death penalty is unconditional, although she can still be sentenced to life imprisonment as the most severe punishment.'