Lawyers provide free legal help to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-3 18:58:01

China has seen several cases of wrongful conviction overturned in recent years. Against a changing political background, with increasing emphasis on rule of law, some lawyers have taken matters in their own hands by offering free legal help to possible victims of wrongful conviction to hasten their freedom and prevent future injustice.

A judge inducts new judges in a court in Huaying, Sichuan Province, on October 30. Photo: IC

After more than 10 years of calling to reopen their son's case, Li Sanren and Shang Aiyun received a letter from their local court.

Their son, Hugejiletu, was sentenced to death in 1996 for raping and killing a woman. He was executed 62 days later. In 2005, Zhao Zhihong, a serial killer from Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, was caught and confessed to the crime.

Hugejiletu's parents have since called for their son's case to be reopened, with the help of lawyers and social media. The letter they received in November was a response to their efforts, telling them their son's case would be reopened, 18 years later.

There are many individuals like Hugejiletu in China, many of whom are still alive but are thought by many to be victims of wrongful conviction. Several groups of lawyers have initiated "innocence projects" to provide free legal help to these individuals, in hope of exonerating them and pushing for reform of the judicial system to prevent future injustice.

These projects come as the central government calls for increased rule of law in China. But experts say that, although the projects are worthy, it may take time to see their effect. 

Pursuing innocence

Wu Huaying had been struggling for more than 10 years when Li Jinxing, a Shandong-based lawyer, reached out to her.

Her brother, Wu Changlong, was accused of bombing the city's Discipline Inspection Commission of the CPC in 2001. He was sentenced to death with a two-year suspension.

During the next 10 years Wu appealed twice, saying he had confessed guilt only under torture. He wrote in a letter to his family, "They handcuffed me to the window every day and wouldn't let me sleep. I couldn't open my eyes, so they slapped me or kicked me. After a few days, my feet started to swell and my waist feels like it's going to snap."

China sees many wrongful convictions because of a lack of judicial independence, says Li. Local governments can easily influence court decisions. Because their focus is on cracking the case, police use torture to extract "confessions." Previous regulations also used to require that any cases involving deaths needed to be solved, resulting in the police catching innocent people just to "finish the job."

Li first found Wu's case through an Internet search. The lawyer got the idea to help the unjustly convicted in 2011. He was surprised when he learned that 10 years later, in 2011, the Fujian High People's Court upheld the death sentence in Wu's case.

He called Wu Huaying, telling her she needed the best lawyers and ample resources to help Wu Changlong.

"I still remember what she said to me," Li said. "She told me, 'We are so poor we can't even afford plane tickets for lawyers, let alone hiring them.'"

That was when Li told Wu Huaying a group of lawyers is working on collecting 100,000 yuan ($16,260) to help out the case.

But helping out isn't that easy, Li said. At first, nobody could even contact Wu, not even his lawyer.

In January 2013, Li and Yang Jinzhu, a Hunan-based lawyer walked into the Fujian high court bringing five sweet potatoes, one for each of the judges on Wu Changlong's case.

"We meant to criticize them with that gesture. The case has dragged on for 10 years," he said.

Their gesture, widely broadcast through the media, finally earned them a chance to see Wu face to face, and to take his case.

Nian Jianlan's situation was similar. Her brother Nian Bin was sentenced to death in 2006 for poisoning his neighbors. Nian Jianlan has been on the road seeking help ever since. She met two lawyers, Si Weijiang and Zhang Yansheng, in 2012, who volunteered to defend Nian Bin for free because they believed he was innocent. Because of their help, Nian Bin was pronounced innocent and released from prison in August.

The individuals in these cases were lucky to receive professional help. But most wrongfully accused who regain their freedom do so only by coincidence, after the real criminals turn themselves in and confess to the crime, says Xu Xin, a law professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

He cites the example of Yu Xianglin, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1994 for killing his wife. But in 2005 his wife returned home after being missing for 11 years. Only then was he released.

There should be a better way to help these convicts, Xu said.

Lawyers working together 

For this reason, in 2013 Li and a couple other lawyers launched their first "innocence project" at a teahouse in Sichuan Province. The goal is to help wrongfully convicted people to overturn their sentences.

Not long after, two more innocence projects came into being, one started by Xu Xin, the other as a joint project between Beijing-based Shangquan Law Firm and China University of Politics and Law. Though these projects focus on different cases, the criteria for case selection are the same, and all legal help is provided for free.

The lawyers pick death sentence cases that are questionable due to lack of crucial evidence, bring law professors or other lawyers to discuss them, and then write appeals, hoping to reopen the cases.

Sometimes the power of social media is used to exert pressure on the judiciary and create discussion. Xu has more than 20 million followers on Weibo and he uses that influence to the fullest extent. One post he sent out about a wrongful conviction was re-posted more than 500,000 times.

Stumbling along the way 

Wu's case was a success story for Li and his partners. But the individuals who aren't receiving such help vastly outnumber those who are. 

"I don't dare read Weibo messages from unfriended contacts, I'm sorry, because it's too much for me, there's at least 10 calls for help every day," Xu said. "Sometimes I see three death cases in a day. I can't absorb it all."

A lack of resources means the lawyers can only pick the most severe cases. But even the few they tackle are challenging enough.  

Analyzing cases and writing summaries isn't even the most difficult part of the job. To convince a court to reopen a case, lawyers first have to get a foot in the door at the court and hand the paperwork in to prosecutors.

Even this basic task is a stumbling block, Gao said. It can be almost impossible to find prosecutors' personal phone numbers. Once the paperwork is submitted, lawyers have to wait for courts to reopen the case, which can take significant follow-up work.

Before the lawyers reached out to her, Wu was using an old method: petitioning. In 10 years spent trying to clear her brother's name, she has thrown herself in front of the car of the provincial Party committee secretary at least 40 times. She has been detained many times for disrupting social order. She set up a blog and published every letter and application she'd written to the police, court and provincial Party committee.

Nian Jianlan's experiences were similar. Although she did not petition much, she and the lawyer Zhang Yansheng focused on finding people who gave the original testimonies and finding holes in the original evidence. They even traveled to Hong Kong to speak with experts on poison.

Long way to go 

That more cases are being overturned is connected with a changing political atmosphere in China, Li said.

In 2013, Zhou Qiang became the president of the Supreme People's Court of China and called for increased attention on overturning wrongful convictions. The cases of Wu Changlong and Nian Bin were among the highest-profile cases being called for re-examination.

In June 2014, six provinces and municipalities enacted legal reforms that will require law enforcement personnel to bear life-long responsibility for their roles in wrongful judgments.

The Fourth Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee in October also placed a heavy emphasis on the "rule of law" as well. Soon after the plenum, in early November, a Criminal Law Amendment draft was released for discussion. The draft rescinds the death penalty as a punishment for nine types of crimes, including arms smuggling and forcing a person into prostitution.

Gao said he felt optimistic about the direction the country is going, but thinks such rhetoric might need time to put into practice, because of the pressure present in the judicial system.

Only 10 days after being found innocent, Nian Bin was once again back on the suspect's list at the local police station. When he went to the police to apply for a passport in November, he was denied. Police told him new evidence had been found and he is still considered guilty. He was put back on the suspect list in September.

Xu said he hopes the innocence projects can push for judicial reform. Through individual cases, corruption and wrongful practices are exposed, and hopefully injustices can be stopped in the future.

Other innocence project lawyers agree.

"I hope the situation will improve as time goes on, and our project will contribute to the improvement, even if it's only the tiniest bit," Gao said.

Newspaper headline: Age of innocence

Posted in: In-Depth

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