SPC To Commission Research on the Death Penalty Review System

February 10, 2005

According to an article published in the People’s Daily on January 31, the Supreme People’s Court has designated the death penalty review system as one of ten key subjects to be researched in 2005. Observers noted that the announcement marks the start of the process to reform China’s death penalty review system. However, if the research timetable discussed in the article is any indication, reform of the review system is still at least a year away. The SPC is reportedly putting the research effort out for bid. Research groups have until the end of this March to apply for the project and will then have until March 2006 to complete their investigation and study report. The NPC Standing Committee would then need to approve any changes by amending the Organic Law of the People’s Courts.

Although the PRC Criminal Procedure Law and Criminal Law state that the SPC shall review all death sentences, in the 1980s, the SPC delegated this power to provincial high people’s courts for cases involving murder, rape, and several other crimes. In doing so, the SPC relied on a provision in the Organic Law of the People’s Courts that authorizes such a delegation of power. However, Chinese legal scholars and some judges have argued that the criminal law provisions should control because they are enshrined in "basic laws" passed by the full National People’s Congress, as opposed to the Organic Law, which is a "general law" passed by the NPC Standing Committee. Observers have expressed concern that under the current system, high courts serve as both the appeals court for the trial and the sentence review court, creating the potential for errors and unequal application of the death penalty in different provinces. According to last year's SPC Work Report, in 2003 alone, the SPC changed the original sentence or ordered retrials in 118 of the 300 death penalty cases that it did review.

In November, a group of prominent legal scholars commissioned by the Supreme People's Court proposed amending the Organic Law of the People’s Courts to return the power of death penalty review to the SPC (see related story here). It is unclear why the SPC is now proposing a new yearlong research effort to examine such changes. The move may be an effort to stall implementation of proposed reforms or may reflect disagreement over such proposals.