Death penalty case back in spotlight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2012, 12:00am


The death penalty case of Yao Jiaxin has again attracted media attention after the parents of Zhang Miao sought 200,000 yuan (HK$246,000) in compensation from Yao's parents, eight months after he was executed for killing Zhang.

Yao, a 21-year-old music student, was sentenced to death for murdering the 26-year-old mother after he had knocked her down in a traffic accident. Although she was not badly injured in the accident, Yao flew into a rage when he saw Zhang trying to memorise his car licence number and stabbed her to death.

The overwhelming public support for his death penalty conviction at the time might have been a factor in the sentence, which was handed down even though Yao had turned himself in after the incident and had expressed deep remorse over Zhang's death.

However, public sentiment had a drastic reversal last week - to strong disapproval of Zhang's family for pressing Yao's parents for compensation after they had rejected it last year, saying that it was 'blood-tainted money' and that Yao must pay for the crime with his life.

To make matters worse for the Zhangs, they first said the money was for medical treatment for Zhang's mother, but five days later they said they would hold the Yaos to their promise and that the money would be donated to charity.

This new twist should prompt a more rational reflection on Yao's case, as some commentators have noted. Was the public too emotional and quick to judge Yao and his family last year? Did public opinion play a part in pushing the Zhangs to reject the Yaos' compensation at the time? Ultimately, why didn't Yao's death put an end to this tragedy for both families?

For many people, the role of one person comes to light: Zhang Xian, a university professor and relative of the Zhangs, whose accusation that Yao was the child of a rich and powerful family contributed much to the negative public sentiment. In September, Yao's father Yao Qingwei filed a defamation suit against Zhang.

'Zhang orchestrated this claim for compensation in order to divert the attention from Yao's defamation suit against him,' said Ma Yanming, an internet user that Yao's father has appointed to speak on his behalf in the current controversy. 'It was also he who turned this into a 'class' struggle - the urban against the rural, the rich against the poor.'

Ma said the 200,000 yuan compensation offer lapsed when the Zhangs rejected it and Yao's father returned the money to relatives and friends during the Lunar New Year.

However, the Yaos were still willing to offer compensation to the Zhangs if they faced financial difficulties, he said.

'But they need to first show they are in such difficulties, and apologise for the untruthful things they had said of Yao,' Ma said.

The media estimated that the Zhangs had received about one million yuan in donations, but most of the money had been placed in funds and insurance.

Ma said the family should have received about 200,000 yuan in cash and must explain how the money had been spent. Zhang Xian said the cash amount was only 145,000 yuan, of which 45,000 yuan had been donated to child victims of crime in Shanghai.

In October 2010, Yao, a student at Xian Conservatory of Music, was driving home when he knocked down Zhang, who was riding a motorcycle. Yao said he stepped out of his car to see if Zhang was hurt but saw her trying to remember his number plate. Fearing she would cause trouble, Yao went back to his car and took out a kitchen knife he had bought earlier that day. He then stabbed Zhang eight times.

Two days later, Yao, accompanied by his parents, surrendered to the police. Despite expressing remorse, Yao was sentenced to death in April last year, with the court saying that the crime was too grave to be mitigated. The sentence was upheld a month later and Yao was executed on June 7.

The dispute last week arose out of the 200,000 yuan compensation Yao's parents offered in May last year to Zhang's parents, husband and two-year-old child. The Zhangs, who had earlier rejected a court-ordered payout of 45,000 yuan, turned down the offer, saying that they did not want to let Yao off lightly by accepting the money.

However, on February 7, Zhang's father called Ma, saying that his wife needed money for medical treatment. The Zhangs also released a statement on Zhang Xian's microblog saying that they were claiming the 200,000 yuan compensation because Yao Qingwei had said in his own microblog that the money was placed in a special account for the Zhangs should they need it in future.

'This is really treating us like dogs, dangling a piece of bone in front of us,' the Zhangs said in another statement two days later.

On February 13, the Zhangs issued another statement saying that they would donate the sum to rural children so they would be educated and not behave like Yao when they grew up.

Ma said the Zhangs had not contacted him since the last statement.

Criminal law expert professor Liu Renwen, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the latest development showed the need for improvement to the criminal reconciliation procedure and the setting up of a government fund for crime victims.

'Victims do not want those with money to be able to pay off their crime, and so they reject money even when they need it. This dilemma arises because we and our criminal reconciliation process puts too much stress on monetary compensation, and not enough on spiritual remorse,' Liu said.

'With a government fund, victims can decide whether or not to forgive the defendant relatively free of any financial consideration.

'And if a defendant shows true remorse and pulls together all his resources to repay the victim's family, the court should still consider this a mitigating factor according to law, even though the sum may be small or the victim's family may be reluctant.'