Xia Lianggui, a farmer's son from the southeastern province of Jiangxi, raped his girlfriend. When she demanded they marry, he strangled her. Although he was a minor, Chinese courts sentenced the youth to death.
But then defense attorney Li Yunlong took on the case.
"[His] father spent all night traveling to see me," says Mr. Li, recalling the case of a few years ago with pride. "I discovered that although the court said he was 18 ... his residence card said he was underage." The youth was sent to a prison for minors, and after two years, his sentence was reduced from life to 18 years.
In a country that, according to Amnesty International, executes more people for more crimes than the rest of the world put together, defense lawyer Li has made a career of launching last-minute successful appeals for death-row defendants. Of the 16 clients on death row he has taken on, 12 have won reprieves, including some like Xia who had been found guilty of murder.
"When I go into the prison, the prisoners fall to their knees and beg me to save them," the attorney says. "I do what I can, but sometimes, nothing can be done."
His clients seek him out in Jiangxi Province's capital city, Nanchang, where he's a law professor. Often he's paid with little more than fresh vegetables, or in Xia's case, "all the father had was a basket of fresh eggs, so I accepted that as payment," says Li, whose campaign against the death penalty also includes 20 years of writing articles and books.
"My family taught [that] one should walk without killing the ants," he says. "Killing is not the right way to solve problems."
Sentences are carried out swiftly in China, often by a bullet to the back of the head after verdicts are read in a stadium or other public place. The appeals process is sometimes no longer than weeks or even days.
The role of defense lawyer in Chinese courts was established officially for the first time only five years ago with the adoption of a "lawyer's law." Today, many lawyers are frequently arrested for attempting to thwart the authority of the state if they plead too vigorously. But Li, a 51-year-old former Red Guard from Jiangxi province and a Communist Party member for 30 years, says he has not encountered resistance and has not been arrested.
What separates China from other countries like the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, who are also criticized for using capital punishment, is the large number of crimes which are punishable by death. Last week, for example, the country participated in the United Nations International Anti-Drugs Day by carrying out a series of executions of drug convicts reports estimated between 50 and 90 were put to death.
When the People's Republic produced its first criminal code soon after 1979, it included the death penalty for 73 out of a list of 430 crimes, including 28 loosely defined economic crimes.
In the 1980s, Chinese were executed for the theft or embezzlement of goods worth 30,000 yuan $3,600 under the current exchange rate. "Prisoners ask me: 'How can I be killed for just 30,000 yuan?' " says Li, recalling the case of a boy who had stolen cigarettes from a shop. "Even the shopkeeper wanted to save his life, but in the end, I could do nothing."
According to Amnesty International, which compiles annual reports of death sentences, China sentenced about 4,000 people to death in 2001.
"We believe the real figures are higher. There is speculation they are as high as 50,000 a year, but though it varies from year to year, it is probably around 10,000," says Arlette Laduguie, a senior researcher on China at Amnesty International's London headquarters. "It is extremely rare to get information about successful appeals," she adds.
China has never revealed any statistics on executions, but Li cautiously says that many more people are executed than reported by the media.
Amnesty International researchers suspect China is relying on executions as the chief strategy in the "Yan-Da" or "Strike Hard" campaign that President Jiang Zemin launched in the mid-1990s to combat rising crime and growing corruption. Under the crackdowns, the country's legal institutions are required to speed up normal criminal procedures in order to meet quotas. The effect of these measures is often to negate progress China has made toward giving detainees more rights. For instance, appeals are never referred to the Supreme Court, but are dealt with at the provincial level.
Chinese officials defend the death penalty by claiming their opinion polls show that 95 percent of the population supports it.
But Li is not convinced. "I don't think ordinary people agree with capital punishment, except to avenge blood debts," he says. "If it is a deterrent, why is corruption growing?"
Li claims that he has even persuaded appeals courts to consider mitigating circumstances. He recalls one recent case in Shanghai in which a man murdered his business partner and was subsequently condemned to death. In court, he argued that the sentence should be reduced to life imprisonment because his client was drunk and had turned himself in to the police. Li also noted that the victim had been trying to make off with their jointly owned business assets.
While Li's views have made him unpopular with the publicsecurity ministry, he says opinion is shifting. For economic crimes, the state has now raised the threshold for execution to 500,000 yuan or $60,000. In fact, execution for economic crimes is now rarely applied to cases that do not involve 3 or 4 million yuan.
The defense attorney hopes that China will abolish the death penalty for all economic crimes, such as tax evasion, which do not involve violence.
"The influence of foreign countries is important in this debate," he says. "When people say: 'What does it matter if a few die there are over a billion of us,' I say, what about India? They have only executed five or six people, and there are nearly a billion of them."