Hubei Man Convicted of Wife's Murder Ten Years Ago Exonerated

April 8, 2005

(Updated April 8) The wife of a man sentenced to death ten years ago for her murder suddenly returned to their Hubei village last week. The convict was still alive, however, because after an appeals court rejected the verdict in 1994 and ordered a retrial, his sentence was changed to 15 years’ imprisonment. The story, originally published in the Legal Daily on April 1 and widely circulated in China’s official media since then, comes in the midst of national debate over the death penalty in China and a public uproar over revelations that authorities executed an innocent man named Nie Shubin in nearby Hebei province (see related story here). The Hubei High People’s Court adjudication committee reportedly met last week to evaluate lessons learned from the new case and called on provincial courts to evaluate evidence strictly and exercise care in passing judgment on every criminal case.

According to the Legal Daily report, police found an unidentified body in a Jingshan township reservoir in 1994 and decided it was the wife of She Xianglin. Shortly afterward, they detained Mr. She and interrogated him. Police contend Mr. She confessed to the crime, but he reportedly gave four different accounts of the murder. Although the original Legal Daily article did not state directly that police tortured Mr. She, subsequent articles in several Chinese publications, including the People’s Daily, the China Daily, and the Southern Metropolitan Daily, indicate that police severely beat him during their interrogation. Some sources published photographs showing the broken fingers and other injuries resulting from the torture.

An intermediate people’s court convicted Mr. She for the alleged murder and sentenced him to death in late 1994. On appeal, however, the Hubei High People’s Court adjudication committee declared that it had serious doubts about the evidence in the case and ordered a retrial. For nearly three years afterward, prosecutors in two different jurisdictions bounced the case back and forth and conducted supplemental investigations, until in 1998 prosecutors finally decided there was not enough evidence to pursue a punishment of a life sentence or greater. On retrial, a local court again convicted Mr. She but changed his sentence to 15 years’ imprisonment. Mr. She was serving his term when his wife suddenly reappeared on March 28. His wife, who claims she suffers from a mental illness, apparently had wandered to Shandong province in 1994 and resettled with another family there. Mr. She and several members of his family who were detained in connection with the case plan to file claims for state compensation.

Mr. She’s torture and wrongful conviction, coming in the wake of the Nie Shubin wrongful execution controversy, appears to have intensified criticism of China’s criminal justice system. Although the Legal Daily declared that "an innocent man’s precious life" was saved due to the Hubei High Court’s "great sense of responsibility," articles in the People’s Daily and Xinhua noted that “She’s case is far from being exceptional under the country’s flawed criminal justice system” and concluded that the case “calls China’s judicial system into question." Li Guifang of the All China Lawyer’s Association argues that “from She’s case, we can easily come to the conclusion that the suspects’ right to defense should be further respected and protected in the country.” In the context of general public anger over law enforcement abuses in China, discussion and outrage over the She Xianglin and Nie Shubin cases has the potential to accelerate criminal justice reforms. A similar dynamic was observed in 2003 when public anger over the beating death of a detainee in Guangzhou forced the government to scrap a long-criticized form of administrative detention called custody and repatriation.

This summary and analysis is based on a collection of sources. For English-language accounts of the case, click on the following: (1, 2, 3, 4). For initial Chinese-language accounts, click on the following: (1, 2, 3). For an update on the official investigation into the case, click here.