Friday, November 12, 2010
Justice! Not Guilty! Free Men: The Hsichih Trio
This morning I stood out in front of Taiwan’s High Court of Criminal Appeals along with over one hundred other anxious and eager people to hear the verdict for the long running and controversial Hsichih Trio case.
Taiwan has over 200 ongoing criminal cases that have lasted over 10 years. In Taiwan’s appeal process, trials for murder and other serious crimes can bounce between the High Court and the Supreme Court (the highest level of judiciary in the country) because any appeals to the Supreme Court can be handed down to the High Court for an unlimited amount of retrials. This results in judicial ping-pong, and a stalemate in very serious cases. The most infamous ongoing case is the murder trial involving three suspects known as the “Hsichih Trio,” named after the place of murder in northern Taiwan. The trio—Su, Liu Bing-lang and Chuang Lin-hsun—have been waiting for a final verdict for almost 20 years.
In August 1991 these three men were arrested on suspicion of murdering a husband and wife. They were convicted of murder, robbery, and rape, a combination of offences that hold a mandatory death sentence in Taiwan. All three claim to have been tortured and forced into confessing, and there has never been any direct or physical evidence to link them to the murder scene. In February 1992 the three men were found guilty on all accounts and sentenced to death. In the next three and a half years the case was twice sent to the lower courts for retrials, but again, despite any direct evidence or witnesses, inconsistencies in the confessions and the coroner’s testimony that there was no evidence that the female victim had been raped, the conviction was upheld in February 1995. Allegedly, during the district court trials, the judges had refused some of the defense witnesses, including people who had seen the three men elsewhere on the night of the murder. Taiwan’s Prosecutor General made several attempts to have the Supreme Court review the case, but each of his appeals was rejected.
Thus, Taiwan’s justice system condemned three men to death without any substantial evidence, and based the conviction almost entirely on their confessions. This violates Taiwan’s Criminal Procedure Law, revised in 2003, that prohibits confessions from being the primary source of evidence, and forbids the use of confessions extracted through methods of torture. “Torture was clearly recorded during police questioning and the officials involved were impeached by the Control Yuan, while officers involved in the torture were found guilty by the court and sentenced to death,” Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) executive director Lin Hsin-yi said.” “Yet the Court only deleted part of the confessions that were clearly the result of torture, while keeping other parts.”
In 2003, in yet another retrial, the courts overturned the previous rulings and after spending 12 years in prison awaiting death, the Hsichih Trio was briefly acquitted. Yet on June 30, 2007 the court overturned the verdict of not guilty and re-sentenced the three men to death. In the past three years the Trio has continued to fight for their lives while walking “free” on the street, trying to maintain some form of pedestrian life.
In a public statement from Amnesty International entitled “Taiwan: Miscarriage of Justice: Hsichih Trio re-sentenced to death,” the international human rights organization stated that they “express deep concern at the...2007 sentencing to death...Amnesty International considers the defendants to have suffered repeated miscarriages of justice over the 16 years that the case has been in the Taiwanese court system.” Amnesty International, along with other international organizations and Taiwanese organizations, that oppose the use of the death penalty have appealed to the President for clemency with no success. At the judicial level, there has been much hesitancy by the judges to overrule the verdicts of their predecessors even in the name of justice. “Experience shows that the longer a case runs, the less likely it is to be either truthful or just,” declares the Judicial Reform Foundation on their website.
On October 15, 2010 Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan passed the proposed “Fair and Speedy Criminal Trials Act,” which aims to stop long-running cases like that of the Hsichih Trio. It states that if a case lasts more than 10 years, the courts would be empowered to drop it or to commute the sentence; if a case lasts more than 6 years, and has been found innocent three times by the High Court, the non-guilty verdict would be final. This draft has yet to be put to a vote in the legislature, and continues to attract criticism from law experts, academics and local human rights groups. Critics argue that amnesty should be granted after a certain amount of years if lack of evidence prohibits the trial from moving forward. Even Myanmar, a country with a horrible history of human rights abuses has a law that prohibits defendants from being detained for more than 5 years without a final verdict.
Around the world there have been 129 countries, which have abolished the death penalty through law or practice. Today, what I saw on the steps of the courthouse is the core of one of the most active human rights movements in Taiwan. Busy bodied volunteers had strung hundreds of postcards written to the defendants, lawyers and judges between the trees along the street. Members from the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) were handing out bright yellow banners, which people wrapped around their arms or heads. Prior to the appeal, dedicated supporters had purchased “We Are Free Men” t-shirts that have silk-screened shadow images of the Trio along with the slogan “waiting for justice since 1991.” The court allowed 112 members of the public inside, and the rest waited on the steps to hear the outcome. There was palpable tension in the air around 10 a.m. when the verdict was being read inside. After a 30 second delay, a shriek of triumph flew out of the courthouse and the news that the 2007 guilty verdict had been overturned brought tears of joy to many of those holding yellow banners. The crowd chanted in support as the judges came outside to speak to the press, and there was loud applause as the three members of the Hsichih Trio emerged from the court as free men (again). Everyone bowed their head in one minute of silent prayer, and as the heads came up and the tears were wiped away, the Trio was escorted from the court, trailed by a long line of cameras and microphones. The news spread quickly that the prosecution plans to appeal within 20 days, but this took little away from the day’s victory, and the shared feeling of accomplishment amongst all the people present. As the crowd began to disperse, a few drops fell from the one rain cloud in the sky, as if to remind everyone that fate, like the weather, can change very quickly.
For more information on the Hsichih Trio Case visit:
Taipei Times Article
Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty
Taiwan Association for Human Rights