Did the law bow to public opinion in Yu Huan’s case?

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/23 21:13:40

The Shandong Provincial High People's Court on Friday overturned the life imprisonment sentence imposed by a lower court against a man who fatally stabbed a violent debt collector while defending his mother. The court sentenced Yu Huan to five years in prison on the charge of intentional injury caused by excessive force in defense.

Yu was sentenced to life imprisonment on February 17, 2017 by the Intermediate People's Court of Liaocheng in Shandong. The case sparked controversy after media exposure. 

The reversal of the verdict has been generally welcomed by the public but there are also criticisms claiming this is a case in which "public opinion successfully intervened in a judicial decision."

In recent years, a significant portion of heated debates on the Internet have involved judicial issues and most debates target a specific case. This is certainly a brand new phenomenon in the process of China's building of the rule of law. How can courts handle a case according to the law without being interfered with by public opinion? To what extent should judicial proceedings be subject to the supervision of public opinion? What is the boundary between the two issues? Chinese society has gradually developed an understanding as cases which spiral into high-profile events igniting public debate have emerged one after each other.

Court decisions are generally not against the opinion of the majority of the public. However, once such a discrepancy occurs, we need to narrow it. The discrepancy may result from two circumstances. There can be problems with the rulings issued by grass-roots judges and their verdicts sometimes need to be overturned. The public may be misguided given the insufficient information available to them or they may not have an adequate understanding of the law and relevant regulations. In the latter case, it is necessary to make adequate and correct information available to the public.

In Yu's case, it seems both these issues are at play. The verdict by the Intermediate People's Court of Liaocheng was incorrect and after the case was exposed, it was almost overwhelmingly labeled by netizens as a case in which "a son killed a violent debt collector while defending his mother." Friday's verdict by the higher court in Shandong not only corrects the original ruling to include the concept of self-defense but also upholds the ruling that the crime committed by Yu falls into the category of a crime of intentional injury and thus handed down a reduced five-year prison term to Yu.

It must be noted that the ruling was made in the full gaze of the public. While public attention to the case has been intense, the judicial resources that have been pooled into investigating this case have also been overwhelming. In this light, we may say that the verdict by the high court represents the highest standard of "judicial justice" that we can achieve in our era.           

Questioning court verdicts has become mainstream following media exposure. But after second-instance rulings are delivered, we hope that people who hold different views of a case may try to develop an understanding and recognition of the verdict and make their due contribution toward achieving social consensus.

Different individuals, including judges, may have different views on how to rule on a case given that judicial discretion plays a big part in most legal cases. These different views may mirror public opinion. But in a mature law-based society, these different views will tend to converge and be bound by the highest court's rulings on matters of law without undermining the authority of final rulings.

At the time Yu's case was being heatedly debated, some believed that Yu should be acquitted because his action can be deemed as "justifiable defense," while others believed that Yu's case is a murder case and the original ruling should be upheld.     

Besides differing points of views and levels of understanding, ideological sentiments can play a big role in shaping debates. The former camp basically bore a grudge against the authorities and may find that the more completely they reject rulings, the more effectively they can vent their anger. The latter camp is apt to act or speak against the former camp because they believe most people in the former camp are extremists. 

In an era which embraces diversified opinions, public opinions may not all be mainstream but they are all part of the forces which drive society forward. Constructive interaction between law and public opinion can play an indispensable role in promoting the rule of law on all fronts in China. How can China achieve constructive interaction between law and public opinion? China is exploring possibilities and it has been said that its efforts have yielded noticeable results.

Posted in: EDITORIAL

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