China posthumously exonerates young man two decades after execution

The case highlighted the progress that has been made in the Chinese legal system, yet indicated issues that remain to be addressed.

Oded Balilty/AP/File
Chinese police officers patrol with sniffer dogs at Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People as a 2008 plenary session of the National People's Congress continues inside. China's Supreme People's Court Chief Justice Xiao Yang said at the time that China has restricted the use of the death penalty except for the most serious crimes.

China’s exoneration of a young man executed two decades ago is a credit to those who drew attention to the case, but problems with the legal system remain, experts say.

Nie Shubin was in his early twenties when he was found guilty of raping and killing a woman in the city of Shijiazhuang, located in Hebei province in northern China. Though Mr. Nie appealed the city court decision, a provincial court upheld the verdict, and he was executed in April 1995. On Friday, China’s highest legal body, the Supreme People’s Court, reversed its decision and exonerated Nie.

“The facts are unclear, the evidence is insufficient,” the court ruled, according to state news agency Xinhua.

The two-decade-old case has highlighted issues with the legal system. The wide publicity the case received may have helped ensure Friday’s exoneration, but legal scholars say there is still much more to be done.

In the 1990s, a wave of campaigns aimed at tackling crime created pressure for speedy trials and executions. In response, local Chinese authorities cut corners, in some cases forcing confessions in order to rack up convictions in cases without sufficient evidence.

The court ruled Friday that Nie’s confession might have been obtained by torture or other illegitimate means. It also observed that Nie was determined to be the suspect “without a shred of evidence.” 

Another man, Wang Shujin, confessed to the crime in 2005. The confession sparked a public discussion of the conviction and widespread support for Nie’s parents, who appealed the conviction in 2007.

In a similar case, another court exonerated ethnic Mongolian teenager Huugjilt in 2014, after another man confessed. Huugjilt was executed in 1996.

Though wrongful executions have angered the Chinese public, the death penalty itself is popular. And addressing past mistakes can be problematic, Chinese legal scholar Xu Xin noted.

"A vindication like this implies that compensation would have to be made, and someone could potentially be held responsible for the mistake, so that makes authorities unwilling to make an active push to correct the injustice," he told the Associated Press.

Huugjilt's parents were awarded compensation when his conviction was overturned, and Nie's parents may receive the same treatment.

Legal reforms can provide part of the answer, Professor Xu suggested. All death penalty convictions are now automatically reviewed by the high court, and justices say capital punishment is only meted out for the most heinous crimes, the Associated Press reported.

Rights groups, however, contend that China still carries out more executions than any other country. And everyone in the legal system still wants to see convictions, compromising the process, Xu added.

"The police, prosecutors and the court mainly cooperate with each other, not as checks against each other, defense lawyers aren't able to play their roles fully, while officials can easily interfere in cases," Xu said. "These all contribute to wrongful convictions."

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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