Woman recalls her ordeal getting wrongful conviction overturned

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2016-1-5 18:58:01

Thirteen years after being wrongly convicted of fatally poisoning an infant, Qian Renfeng was acquitted. Until that moment, Qian, who was arrested when she was only 17, had spent her entire adult life in prison. Qian's is not a unique case. Last year, there were several similar cases in which people were acquitted after more than a decade behind bars. Lawyers say these cases reflect the improvements made to China's judicial system as the country is now putting greater emphasis on the rule of law, but there are still major issues that must be confronted.

Having served 13 years in prison, Qian Renfeng (second from left) walks free with her brother and two lawyers after the Yunnan Higher People's Court overturned her conviction on December 21, 2015. Photo: IC

Qian Renfeng breathed a sigh of relief when the judge at a court in Southwest China's Yunnan Province declared that she was innocent. After being wrongly convicted 13 years ago, Qian was finally free. Her decade of making appeals and seeking justice had finally paid off.

Qian walked out of the court accompanied by her relatives and lawyers, the sun shining down on her delicate features. Her eyes reddened as she said a few words of  thanks to those waiting outside.

On December 21, 2015, the Higher People's Court of Yunnan acquitted Qian of poisoning and killing an infant in a kindergarten in the province's Qiaojia county. Qian was given a life sentence for the crime in 2002.

"I read in the news while in prison that many innocent people have been acquitted. I had faith that one day I would be released like them, too. This belief supported me through all those difficulties," Qian told the Chongqing Morning Post.

Qian's is one of several cases of wrongful conviction that have been overturned in recent years, which have been acclaimed in some quarters as proof that the countries legal system is improving.

During the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee in October 2014, a heavy emphasis was put on "comprehensively advancing the rule of law," the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Lawyers say that there have been some improvements to the judicial system following greater official attention to the "rule of law," but said they there are still many barriers to seeking legal justice in practice.

Road to justice

On February 22, 2002, a child was poisoned at Xingrui Kindergarten in Qiaojia, where Qian was working as a nanny.

The kindergarten's owner, Zhu Mei, discovered that three children were vomiting after eating their lunch. After they were sent to a local hospital for treatment, a 2-year-old child died shortly after.

Qian was accused, and subsequently convicted, of injecting rat poison into the children's food at the Intermediate People's Court of Zhaotong, Yunnan, the Chongqing Morning Post reported.

Because Qian was a teenager, she was given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty and she was deprived of her political rights for life.

Qian, who was unsatisfied with the verdict, appealed. Her lawyer claimed that "the evidence is not sufficient" and Qian was "tortured by the police to make a confession" and that the case should go to a retrial. But the Higher People's Court argued that the evidence was clear and upheld the original ruling.

But Qian did not give up hope, and kept writing to lawyers to get them to represent her and to governmental organizations she thought might be able to help.

The turning point came in 2010, when Yang Zhu, a lawyer with International Lawyers Inc. China, met Qian in prison for her case.

"I was entrusted by the Yunnan Justice Department to offer legal help to prisoners. I made up my mind to help her [Qian Renfeng] when I listened to her story. It's a lawyer's responsibility to overturn injustice," Yang told the Global Times. 

Yang then submitted an application to reopen Qian's case and officially protested the original ruling to the Yunnan Procuratorate.

It took five years for the Yunnan Procuratorate to recommend the case be reassessed. In September 2015, the provincial Higher People's Court reopened the case.

After reexamining the case, the court said that the prosecution's case lacked clear evidence, especially regarding what kind of poison was used, when it was used and how. Three policemen were also found to have faked Qian's confessions, according to the court.

The Higher People's Court eventually announced that Qian had been wrongfully convicted due to insufficient evidence. 

Lingering problems

Qian returned home the day after her release. On her way into her father's home she stepped over a fire pan, a symbol of getting over bad things.

The 25-square-meter home has no furniture but a table, a shabby couch and a television. A portrait of Qian's deceased mother sits on the table.

Tears rolled down her cheeks the moment she saw the portrait and Qian kneeled down in front of it. "Mother, could you open your eyes to see me? I'm back," she said.

Qian's mother passed away in May, unable to see Qian one more time. She never gave up trying to save Qian during her lifetime.

"People need to take responsibility for their wrong deeds, not only ordinary people, but also policemen," Qian told the Chongqing Morning Post.

In Yang's opinion, Qian's acquittal is not the end of the case. "The murderer is still at large," he said.

Yang told the Global Times that there was a major suspect in the case that police did not investigate. The man, according to Yang, is the son of a retired local official who pursued the kindergartner owner but was rejected by her. 

"The man burgled Zhu Mei's house three times and even set her house on fire," Yang said, adding that when he reached Zhu in 2010 together with his assistant and other members of the media, Zhu was threatened by this man's relative.

"But he was not interrogated by police when the poisoning happened," claimed Yang.

West China Metropolis Daily published an editorial article, commenting that Qian's case reflected the "chronic illness" in the judicial system, and should be used as a reference to avoid such wrongful convictions.

In a previous interview with the Global Times, Shandong-based criminal lawyer Li Jinxing said that due to a lack of judicial independence, Chinese courts have wrongfully convicted many people over the years.

Because local governments' focus on cracking cases, police would use torture to get "confessions." Previous regulations also required that any case involving deaths had to be solved no matter what, resulting in the police rounding up innocent people to "finish the job," Li said.

According to the Beijing Youth Daily, the Yunnan Higher People's Court has already set up a special group to investigate Qian's case and any party who had failed in their duty will be punished.

Looking ahead

In 2013, when Zhou Qiang became the president of the Supreme People's Court of China, he called for increased attention on overturning wrongful convictions.

On December 15 2014, the Higher People's Court in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region ruled that Hugejiletu was innocent, 18 years after he was executed.

Hugejiletu was put to death in June 1996 after being convicted of raping and murdering a woman in Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia. But in October 2005, a man named Zhao Zhihong was arrested by police and subsequently confessed that he had committed the crime.

The reopening of Hugejiletu's case was seen as a milestone in the judicial system. Subsequently several old cases were reopened last year, including Qian's case and that of Yang Ming, who was acquitted in August after having already served 20 years in prison for murder.

"The overturning of those old cases "reflects the improvement in the pursuit of rule of law," Zhang Weibo, criminal lawyer with Beijing Yingke Law Firm, told the Global Times.

From personal experience, Zhang said that courts now pay more attention to evidence, especially evidence that may show the defendant is innocent.

"I hope that in the future, they can better protect lawyers' rights, including making it easier for us to meet with defendants and review related case materials," he said.

Yang noted that despite the improvement, it is still not easy to overturn wrongful convictions and he has troubles when going to courts to hand in paperwork to prosecutors.

"They will use many excuses to reject my paperwork. Because if the case is overturned, the career of those officials who were involved will be affected," he said. "There should be regulation stipulating that if the court officials don't accept materials that ask for cases to be reopened, they will be punished."

According to Yang, the Yunnan Higher People's Court has already contacted Qian to discuss compensation and Qian will be compensated after Chinese New Year in February.

The compensation will consist of two parts: one is based on the time that Qian spent in prison and the other based on mental damage.

"It's still hard to tell how much Qian will get but we will try to get as much as possible," he said.

Qian is now trying to fit into the social life that she has missed for 13 years.

After going through all those things, she is eager for a stable life.

"If I get compensated, I'm planning to open a clothing store. I learned sewing and clothes-making in prison, I think these can come in handy," she told the Beijing Times.

Global Times - Agencies

Newspaper headline: Justice overdue

Posted in: In-Depth

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