Death penalty cases rife with evidence flaws

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2012, 12:00am


Inconsistent standards of evidence and inadequate defence are among the shortcomings of death penalty cases, the deputy chief of the nation's highest court told a criminal defence conference in Beijing at the weekend.

Supreme People's Court Vice-President Zhang Jun, speaking at a conference organised by the China Law Society, said the court had found the quality of capital punishment cases to be worse than expected since authorities ordered all such cases to be reviewed in 2007, according to report by Caixin online.

The biggest problem was with evidence, Zhang said. Law enforcement authorities lacked awareness about the importance of collecting evidence and rules regarding evidence were not applied uniformly.

'For example, [evidence in] murder cases must be subjected to DNA tests,' Zhang said. 'But this is not always carried out.'

Investigators also tended to rely too much on verbal testimony as opposed to physical evidence, he said.

It was because of such problems, Zhang said, that the SPC in 2010 introduced two guidelines on the use of evidence in death penality cases and on the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence - moves considered big improvements by the legal community.

However, the poor quality of death penalty cases was not only the result of actions by police, prosecutors and the courts, Zhang said. Defence lawyers also bore responsibility for the uneven application of evidence standards.

Zhang noted that of the death penalty cases the SPC reviewed over the past five years, none had been overturned due to discoveries by defence lawyers of problems concerning collection of evidence.

Veteran criminal lawyer Zhang Qingsong agreed with the deputy court chief's analysis, saying he also believed lawyers should play a bigger role in death penalty cases. But he said not all problems were a result of incompetence or lawyers not taking their jobs seriously.

'Lawyers' participation in the criminal process is still limited, for example, in terms of their power to carry out independent investigations, review court documents or cross-examine evidence and witnesses,' Zhang Qingsong said.

'And sometimes they did raise points related to the collection of evidence, but such points were not accepted.'

Defence lawyers also often complain about their lack of participation in the SPC review procedure.

Right now the court in not required to hear the opinion of defence lawyers during the hearing of such reviews.

Professor Chen Guangzhong, a criminal law expert, has also pointed out that, in reality, it was not easy for lawyers to initiate the procedure to exclude illegally obtained evidence.

The number of death penalties in China each year is a state secret, but court officials said in spring of 2008 that the review procedures, since being introduced the year before, had reduced the number of executions by 15 per cent.