The policemen investigating a murderous assault knew they didn't have enough evidence against their chief suspect, Li Jiuming, to hold up in court. So they decided to do what police here often do, according to Chinese lawyers: torture a confession out of him.
That false confession, presented four years ago to a court in Tangshan, 100 miles east of Beijing, earned Mr. Li, a prison administrator, a death sentence. But even as his lawyer was presenting an appeals judge with testimony that police interrogators had given Li electric shocks, beaten him, forced hot pepper-water up his nose, and made him drink water until it came out his ears, the real culprit was found.
Li was released. But his ordeal, and others like it, prompted China's Supreme Court last week to assume exclusive authority to review all death sentences, in a move that legal scholars say could reduce abuses in imposing the death penalty and potentially cut the number of people executed in China by as much as one-third.
The new law, in a country where the death penalty enjoys strong popular support, is "an important procedural step to prevent wrongful convictions," Supreme Court President Xiao Yang said, according to the official Xinhua news agency. The agency trumpeted the amendment as "the most important reform of capital punishment in China in more than two decades."
China is thought to execute more prisoners each year than the rest of the world's nations put together, though the statistics are secret. Amnesty International says China executed at least 1,770 people last year, but estimates the real figure to be far higher.
The new law "is very positive," says reformist legal scholar Liu Renwen. "It is a signal that our government will pay more and more attention to limiting the use of the death penalty."
Giving the Supreme Court final review authority will reduce the number of death sentences, analysts here say, because it is less vulnerable to outside pressure than lower courts.
Local tribunals, even provincial high courts, "are easily influenced by local authorities" says Chen Weidong, a professor at Beijing People's University Law School. "And local authorities like to use the death penalty because they think it is good for public security."
Zhu Aimin, the lawyer who defended Li against the trumped-up charges of attempted murder, says "very strong pressure from outside" was exerted in his case, though he is still reluctant to identify its exact source.
In 2004, official figures show, the Supreme Court overturned 94 of the 300 death sentences it reviewed, though last year that proportion dropped to about 11 percent.
The new amendment also removes a dangerous anomaly. Currently, 90 percent of death sentences are reviewed by the same provincial courts that heard the appeals, which are unlikely to change their own rulings. Supreme Court hearings will provide "another layer of protection," hopes Mr. Zhu. "They will give defendants a last chance to put their case."
If the new law sends a signal about government intentions, it is unclear what practical impact it will have, some observers caution. "How effective it will be in practice depends on the capacity they are able to build," says Keith Hand, a lawyer with the Yale Law Center in Beijing who has long followed China's death-penalty policy.
The Supreme Court has doubled the number of its review-tribunal judges to 100, but they will have to cope with "a massive new caseload of thousands of cases" each year, Mr. Hand says.
The law, coming after several years of debate in legal circles here, marks a continuation of what pro-reform Chinese legal scholars say is a welcome trend toward more measured use of the death penalty. Since last July, they point out, all appeals of death sentences must be held in open court; previously, appeal judges could simply read through case files in their chambers.
Now, says Mr. Liu, government legal experts are planning to revise China's criminal-procedure law to tackle the sorts of abuses that Li suffered. "Some cases, including death penalty cases, have been decided wrongly, and the most important reason was torture by the police," he says. "We are trying to prevent torture in the pre-trial stage."
There is no sign yet, however, that the authorities are ready to take the step that could cut use of the death penalty most dramatically: reducing the number of crimes for which judges can mete out death. The Chinese penal code prescribes capital punishment for 68 offenses, including tax fraud and embezzlement.
"The logical next step for advocates of death-penalty reform is to reduce the number of crimes punishable by death," says Hand. "But I don't see any great momentum" in that direction, he adds.
"Legal scholars and some officials would prefer not to use the death penalty in cases involving bribery and corruption," says Chen, who says he personally is against the death penalty. "But most people in China support the death penalty, and only a few oppose it.
"Since it is very difficult to abolish the death penalty," he adds, "the best thing to do is to apply strict controls to the way it is applied."
Amnesty International, which runs international campaigns against capital punishment worldwide, would see only government openness about the number of death sentences handed down each year and a reduction in the number of death penalty crimes as "real moves toward abolition," says Mark Allison, Amnesty's researcher in Hong Kong.
In the meantime, says Liu, "undoubtedly the basic trend is to decrease and control the use of the death penalty, but I don't think it can be abolished any time soon."