Deadline for death sentence in Fujian murder case extended

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 May, 2013, 3:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 August, 2014, 9:31am

A telephone call on Friday has again delayed a decision in a murder trial in coastal China, which the nation's highest court called flawed, and has exposed the worrying consequences of a hasty high-profile crime investigation.

In the summer of 2006, Nian Bin, then 30, worked as a food stall owner in Woqian village in Pingtan county, an island in Fujian province. On August 1, he was arrested for the murder of two children, who had died after eating rice porridge containing rat poison only six days earlier.

Traces of poison had been found on the door handle of the apartment rented by Nian next door. When interrogated by police, he confessed to the crime.

On Feburary 1, 2008, the Fuzhou Intermediary Court sentenced Nian to death with immediate execution, pending an appeal. He did so, retracted his confession, starting a legal ordeal that has yet to end. His lawyers say he had been tortured into admitting the crime and the evidence was insufficient for his sentence. 

"What Nian Bin described to us was what we call geshan daniu," said his lawyer Zhang Yansheng. The technique, sometimes mentioned in martial arts novels, is a method of administering beatings through objects such as bricks or, in this case, books by security officials to prevent open marks of torture.

Fujian police denied such allegations in court. 

The Fujian provincial High Court, which handled the appeal, argued that the evidence was insufficient and sent the case back to the Fuzhou Intermediary Court for retrial, which again sentenced Nian to death. This time, when Nian appealed again, the provincial court confirmed the sentence. 

In 2010, the Chinese People's Supreme Court, which is tasked with reviewing all death sentences, overturned the death penalty on grounds of "insufficient evidence". Such reversals are rare.

"Based on anecdotal evidence, 10 to 15 per cent [of death sentences] get sent back," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a researcher at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Most then end up with different verdicts."

"I have seen some reversals of rulings by the Supreme Court, but this is the only one in which the court said the circumstances were too unclear to warrant the death penalty," said Nian's lawyer Zhang. The Beijing-based lawyer said she had handled more than 20 cases involving the death penalty in her career.

The Fuzhou court, when again reassigned the case by the Supreme People's Court, decided again to stick to its original verdict and sentence Nian to death in 2011. It was the fourth time the now 37-year-old had been told he would be executed. He again appealed, but the Fujian High Court has since delayed hearing the trial on appeal.

With Friday's phone call, the court informed Nian's family it had decided to postpone the trial by another three months, arguing that the case was "very complicated".

"The problem here was that the case was immediately declared a 'major crime case' by the security organs," said Zhang. "They had to solve it quickly." Now, "they don't want to be confronted with their mistake."

Several recent high-profile cases of wrongful convictions have given Nian's relatives hope the case against him might be dropped, said his sister Nian Jianlan, who has been petitioning for a different verdict.

Earlier this year, two men have been released in Zhejiang after spending 10 years in jail on charges of murder and rape earlier this year. In April, Shen Deyong, the Supreme People's Court's vice president, called on courts to avoid wrongful convictions.

On May 3, Fujian's High Court declared five people wrongfully convicted on bomb charges 12 years ago as innocent, Southern Weekly reported on Saturday.

The new deadline for a hearing is set for August 25. If the Fujian High Court decides to again rule in favour of a death sentence, the Supreme People's Court will again have to review the case.