Chinese court is put to test as high-profile murder case returns to spotlight
A highly anticipated case of a convicted murderer went to court in northern Hebei province on Tuesday, in what some scholars say could put China's legal system to the test.
On the first day of trial, death row inmate Wang Shujin, 46, was accused of lying when he confessed to a 1994 murder, the court heard. The Hebei man, who was convicted of raping and killing three women in 1994 and 1995, is appealing his death sentence, asking for leniency because he confessed to a fourth murder case.
But a prosecutor with the Higher People’s Court, in provincial capital Shijiazhuang, said Wang's reason for appealing was not valid. "Crucial" details provided by Wang "significantly mismatched" evidence found at the crime scene of the fourth case, the prosecutor said.
“If it were this simple, why did it take eight full years for Hebei to present the evidence?” prominent Peking University law professor He Weifang wrote on Weibo after the prosecutor tried to dismiss Wang’s appeal. “Are they really impartial?”
Wang had confessed to four murders after he was arrested in 2005, but he was convicted in only three of them. Another man, 20-year-old Nie Shubin, had taken the fall for an August 1994 rape and murder of a woman in a Shijiazhuang suburb. Nie was executed in 1995.
At the time, Wang's confession shocked observers across China. Legal scholars and activists were surprised again after Hebei’s court charged Wang for only three murders, ignoring the fourth.
“It’s a huge irony,” law professor He said in an earlier interview with Chinese media. “While Wang yells, ‘There’s this other crime I committed. Convict me please!’, the court tells him, ‘Oh no, we are only after your other crimes'.”
Wang wasn’t aware of Nie’s conviction at the time of his confession, nor did he know Nie. He admitted to have acted alone, according to Chinese media reports. Wang was sentenced in 2007 and promptly appealed. He argued that the court had failed to charge him for the August 1994 murder, and he demanded leniency because of his contribution in proving Nie's innocence.
The court has not absolved Nie's name since, prompting criticism from He, who said China’s judicial system had failed to recognise and correct its fatal mistake. “It fell on the real murderer to clear Nie’s name, which is such a shame,” he had said.
On Tuesday, Nie's mother, Zhang Huanzhi, was allowed to sit in on the proceedings, according to Hebei court authorities. Zhang has said her son had confessed to the crime after being tortured, and she has since been petitioning to rescind Nie’s conviction.
“The only reason my husband and I have lived until now is to see our son’s name cleared,” Zhang once said in an interview with Chinese media.
The prosecutor said on Tuesday that Wang had failed to mention a coloured blouse wrapped around the victim’s neck when the body was found. He had also erroneously described the victim’s height. Wang was also questioned on the method he had claimed to use in the killing: an autopsy showed no fractures endured by the victim, but Wang had claimed he stomped on her chest after strangling her, the court heard.
Based on these discrepancies, the prosecutor dismissed Wang's claim that he was the murderer.
Wang’s lawyer on Tuesday morning responded by requesting to review the prosecutor's evidence. The court said it had granted the request, and would resume the trial on an unspecified date.
The trial on Tuesday was broadcasted live, eliciting angry comments on the official Weibo page of Hebei's higher court, many of them referring to the fact that Wang's case is now being tried in the same court that convicted Nie.
"You are insulting everyone's intelligence," said a microblogger.
"These shameless people keep lying to cover up their own mistake," said many others.
“The defendant tries every means to have himself convicted, and the Hebei prosecutor does everything to prove his innocence,” the law professor, He, commented on Weibo on Tuesday. “What an amazing case.”