Nation aims to undo, prevent, wrongful convictions

(China Daily )Updated : 2018-02-13

Thousands of flawed judgments have been overturned in the past five years, reported China Daily.

On Sunday night, Zhou Yuan joined the Spring Festival travel rush by taking a train to Yining, his hometown in the northwest of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, where he will celebrate China's most important holiday.

This week, Zhou, 48, will celebrate his first Spring Festival following the quashing of his wrongful conviction for a string of sexual attacks that put him behind bars for 15 years.

"I don't know if I should be happier or not this year, but I am certain I will think about the Spring Festivals I spent in prison with the other inmates," he said, before boarding a train in Urumqi, the regional capital.

On Jan 30, Zhou received documents from the Xinjiang High People's Court in Urumqi that outlined the amount the authority is offering as compensation for his flawed conviction.

However, he will probably reject the 1.91 million yuan ($303,000) offer because he believes he deserves more in light of everything that was taken away from him.

"I could have been a successful businessman, a husband and a father. What am I now?" he said.

Since 2013, under an initiative promoted by the central leadership, the nation's legal bodies have accelerated efforts to overturn miscarriages of justice.

Last week, Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People's Court, the top judicial chamber, said one of the main tasks for courts at all levels this year is to improve the quality of case hearings to prevent wrongful convictions.

"We must uphold justice by rejecting evidence gained illegally or improperly, and also highlight the principle of 'no punishment on doubtful evidence'," he said, adding that 4,032 unsafe convictions were quashed between 2013 and September.

In 1991, police in Yining, a city close to Xinjiang's border with Kazakhstan, began receiving reports of women and girls being attacked while they slept. The offender would break into homes or dormitories and assault the victims with a knife. He often molested them too.

In 1997, Zhou was arrested after an attack at a high school in the city. He confessed to eight crimes, including stabbing seven female students in the genital area. He later claimed the officers in charge of his case had forced him to confess.

Descriptions given to the police suggested the suspect was a male in his mid20s. Later the list of suspects was narrowed down to Zhou, who lived near the school and was jobless, according to local paper Ily Daily on July 18, 1997. It reported, "After two days and three nights of questioning, Zhou finally confessed to his crimes on May 20."

No physical evidence was presented at the trial, but Zhou, then 27, was convicted on five charges of intentionally harming and molesting females. He was given a suspended death sentence.

"At the trial, I asked the police officer in charge of the case what he would do if the real attacker was caught. He didn't reply," Zhou recalled.

A year later, police arrested a man named Hou Yong, who confessed to crimes identical to those for which Zhou had been convicted. Hou was executed in 1999.

Retrial and release

Zhou was released from prison in May 2012 after the Xinjiang High People's Court dropped three charges brought against him in a retrial and reduced his sentence.

However, Zhou and his mother continued to appeal until November, when his conviction was quashed as a result of the "unclear and insufficient evidence" presented by the prosecution.

"I didn't cry when I was pronounced innocent because I knew I was innocent from the very beginning. I didn't even look the judge in the eye. I have been badly let down by the legal system," he said.

Wang Xing, one of Zhou's lawyers, said the appeal was a marathon, like most appeals in China.

For more than 20 years, Li Bizhen, Zhou's mother, devoted most of her time and energy to proclaiming her son's innocence and campaigning for his release.

"At the beginning, I didn't really know what a court was, but now I can speak in a loud voice and recite articles of law fluently. I did it all for my son," said Li, who is in her 70s. Her husband, Zhou's father, died while his son was in prison.

Although Zhou was released in 2012, he is still adjusting to life in the outside world. "I don't know how to communicate with people properly, and I am still trying to understand society," he said.

Lost and alone

Zhou's problems and confusion are not unusual for people in his situation.

"I was lost after I was released," said Chen Man, who spent nearly 23 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of arson and homicide in November 1994. His case is China's longest instance of wrongful detention.

"I am in my 50s now. Friends and classmates of similar age have had families and children, and live harmoniously in my hometown. But I am still alone," he said.

In 1992, Chen was detained on charges of killing a man in Hainan province and destroying the evidence by setting a house on fire.

Although no physical evidence was presented at his trial, the Sichuan province native was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve.

From that time on, Chen and his family constantly appealed against his conviction.

In February 2016, Chen's sentence was quashed and he was released from prison.

"I left the world for a long time, so it takes me more time to learn new things. I want to do something related to the internet, but I'm not optimistic about my life," he said.

"I want to succeed on my own, not by relying on others. My wrongful conviction stole so much of my time," the 55-year-old said.

Chen is relieved that his 85-year-old mother is in good health, but his father died just six months after he was released.

His New Year's resolution is to spend more time with his mother, and to find someone who can guide him in business and advise him how to start again.

Wang Wanqiong, Chen's lawyer, said many people who are released after being wrongfully detained are like children because they need care and have difficulty distinguishing right from wrong.

Unlike "real" prisoners who are eligible for educational grants or even help from civil affairs and judicial authorities upon release, people who are released after their convictions are overturned are not entitled to such support, Wang said.

"Many of these cases happened in the 1980s or '90s. In recent years, those who were wrongfully detained have felt as if they have been in a time-travel drama after being released into a new world. The experience makes them uncomfortable," she said.

"We shouldn't leave them alone without support. Instead, we should provide them with step-by-step assistance."

Chen is conducting some low-level business and has invested heavily in a cryptocurrency in a bid to become rich.

"I have urged him to give it up and find a stable job several times, but he ignores me. He was abandoned by our fast-developing society for more than 20 years, and I don't want him to be cheated", she said.

"He just doesn't want other people to look down on him, which I can understand."

Reintegration

Yang Jinzhu is proud of his client Qian Renfeng. He believes the 34-year-old from Yunnan province lives a stable life and has overcome the difficulties of reintegrating into society.

In December 2015, Qian's flawed conviction for poisoning children was overturned after she had served 13 years in prison.

"Unlike ordinary inmates who require more education and treatment after being released, for people like Qian it is more like a process of rebirth," Yang said.

He added that China has no policies designed to help people reintegrate effectively into society.

"They have to rely on sympathetic businesses or individuals who provide job opportunities," he said.

Yang highlighted the importance of holding to account those responsible for imprisoning the innocent, which would be key to reducing the number of wrongful convictions.

"The task is difficult to push forward, but it shouldn't stop defendants, lawyers and media from paying attention to it," he said.

After being released, Qian had mixed feelings when she moved to Guangzhou, Guangdong province, for work.

"At first, I was afraid of strangers and strange things because I knew very little," she said, adding that she was just 17 when she was convicted.

Now, she works as a dormitory manager, and has become familiar with computers and smartphones, which were developed during her time in prison.

Although she doesn't mind talking about her wrongful conviction, she never mentions the subject first, and doesn't want to disturb old friends who lost contact when she was detained.

"I often think about the good old days," she said, adding that what she most needs is good advice relating to life and work.

With that in mind, she will marry a man she met through her work after Spring Festival. "Earning more money may be the most practical thing in the New Year," she said.

During Qian's retrial, the prosecutors found that the signatures on her alleged confession were similar to the handwriting of the police officers who handled the case.

Apologies and apathy

According to the court that cleared Zhou Yuan last year, although there was no sign that his confession has been obtained by torture, there was a possibility that he had been forced or tricked into making it. Moreover, there was no other evidence to back up the prosecution case.

"Many wrongful convictions happened in the 1980s and '90s when China was in transition and the crime rate was relatively high. Legal bodies were under enormous pressure from the public," said Wang Jinxi, a professor who specializes in forensic science at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.

"Also, there were not enough regulations governing evidence gathering, which made it difficult to eliminate illegal evidence."

As China's legal system improves and the number of lawyers rises, greater emphasis is being placed on trial procedures, which will significantly reduce the number of wrongful convictions, he added.

While welcome, the developments have come too late for Zhou. "Maybe I would not lose 15 years of my life if the case were handled today," he said.

Shortly after his conviction was overturned, the Yining public security bureau launched an internal investigation into his case. Zhou is also aware that the bureau and the Xinjiang High People's Court are prepared to officially apologize to him.

He isn't interested, though: "I don't really care about apologies, they won't help me to start a family or set up a cattle farm. I need to look forward."