The Hongcouver

'I strangled her by accident in a blindfolded pillow fight': A killer’s explanation that only Beijing’s high court buys

Latest twist in case of slain Vancouver student Amanda Zhao could set back China-Canada judicial cooperation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2014, 6:12am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:52am

Is it possible to kill someone in a pillow fight? And if so, is it possible to do so by accidentally strangling them to death, a process requiring several minutes of intense effort, without realising what is happening?

Both propositions sound ludicrous. But they represent the Beijing High People’s Court’s preferred version of events, in its decision last week to overturn the murder conviction of Li Ang, who killed girlfriend Amanda Zhao in the Vancouver satellite city of Burnaby on October 9, 2002.

Li, the son of a senior retired PLA officer, fled to China after Zhao’s body was found stuffed in a suitcase. Beijing authorities refused to allow his extradition to Canada, since both Li and the victim were Chinese, but Li was eventually convicted of murder by a Chinese court in 2012. That verdict was hailed as the result of landmark cooperation and evidence-sharing between Canadian and Chinese police and other authorities.

But the result of Li’s appeal last week - in which his conviction was changed to manslaughter and his life sentence reduced to seven years – casts a shadow over future cooperation, according to Vancouver community activist Gabriel Yiu. Yiu has acted as an advocate for Zhao’s impoverished Chinese parents, who used their life savings to send their only child to study in Canada.

Li, who changed his name to Li Jiaming after the killing, will go free in 2016.

“This case showed how to bring both sides together and prosecute a serious case,” said Yiu. “But from now on, people in Canada, including people in government, will be a bit skeptical about the results of cooperating with China on these kind of matters.”

The appeal result has been widely attributed to the claim that Zhao was killed as a result of a pillow fight that somehow turned deadly. But it is only a close reading of the Beijing court’s 32-page ruling that reveals the utter implausibility of Li’s description of events. Not only did he claim to have accidentally killed Zhao in a pillow fight, he said that it all took place while he was blindfolded, leaving him oblivious to Zhao’s death struggles.

“Li Jiaming and Zhao played ‘pillow fight’, which involved blindfolding of their eyes with pillow cases and attacking each other without knowing which part of the body was exactly hit,” the court ruling said as it described the results of Li’s interrogation.

“As the pillow fight went on, Li Jiaming felt that Zhao had increased her force and strength when she hit him, so Li Jiaming did the same to her. They hugged each other and rolled on the bed, harassing each other with the pillow…Li Jiaming hugged Zhao from behind, with his hands pulling both ends of the pillow that covered Zhao from her head to chest. He pulled the pillow tight from behind, so tight and strongly that he felt Zhao’s body turning weak.”

But it was only after a few minutes, when Zhao had finally stopped moving, that Li “sensed she might be dead” and released his grip. Li and his cousin Zhang Han, who lived with the couple in their basement flat, then crammed Zhao’s body into a 60cm by 80cm suitcase and dumped it 100km away on the shores of Stave Lake, where it was found by hikers.

Wracked by guilt, Zhang confessed his role in the tragedy and named Li as the killer in a letter to Zhao’s parents, which he concluded by writing “I’m sorry” 60 times.

In last Monday’s ruling, the High People’s Court said Li “felt Zhao using stronger force when they played pillow fight. Li thus reacted by using stronger force that eventually led to the victim’s death. Case evidence proved that Li’s conduct can be seen and confirmed as an instance of negligence leading to the death of the victim in a criminal case of negligent manslaughter.”

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The court rejected Li’s family’s assertions that the entire case was bogus, that his confession was false and possibly a result of torture, and that DNA and other forensic evidence provided by Canadian police could not be trusted.

A civil suit ruling that requires Li to pay 1.13 million yuan in compensation to Zhao’s parents was upheld. The Canadian case against Zhang, who had been charged with being an accessory to murder, was dropped after a judge ruled that his interrogation had been conducted improperly.

Yiu, who spoke to Zhao’s family a few hours after Monday’s ruling, said they were “totally shocked and devastated”.

Zhao’s mother, Yang Bao-ying, said in a statement: “We neither understand nor accept the ruling. The ruling changes our opinion about the fairness of the law. The ruling abundantly represents that the law can be bought with power or money in China.”

The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.