Will Nie’s case prevent wrong court verdicts?
The Supreme People’s Court declared Nie Shubin innocent on Dec 2 — 21 years after the resident of Shijiazhuang in North China’s Hebei province was executed for “rape and murder” at the age of 21. The correction of the verdict against Nie, a milestone in the legal history of China, shows the promotion of the rule of law has made great progress.
Twenty-one years have passed since Nie was found “guilty of rape and murder” and executed in April 1995. And it has been 11 years since Wang Shujin, a suspect, claimed in 2005 that he had committed the crimes. The sentence given to Nie had attracted a lot of social attention at the time, yet the judiciary in Hebei where the case was heard made little progress.
So instead of asking the Hebei court to review the case, the Supreme People’s Court assigned the job to the High People’s Court of Shandong province, which eventually absolved Nie of the crimes.
That Nie’s case has been corrected marks a giant step in China’s efforts to comprehensively advance the rule of law.
There are several lessons to learn from Nie’s case. According to the current regulations, if there is a problem with a court verdict and the defendant wants a retrial, he/she has to submit the application only to the court that passed the verdict, and the same court will decide whether it should review its own decision. The problem with this system is that the court that passes the judgment is trusted with finding its own mistake. In judicial practice, even after judges realize they have passed a wrong verdict, they tend to not correct it, and that’s possibly why it took so long for Nie’s case to be corrected.
The Supreme People’s Court has set a powerful precedent by appointing another court to review the case, which should become the norm in the future. The correction of Nie’s case also reaffirms the principle of “presumption of innocence”, which means a person is considered innocent unless proven guilty.
In practice, however, some judges doubted the value of the principle because of their firm belief that no criminal should be at large. As a result, some judges declared defendants guilty without sufficient evidence. In a few cases, the defendants were given lighter sentences despite insufficient evidence, instead of being set free.
Now that Nie’s case has been corrected, the judges will realize the significance of the “presumption of innocence” principle and always follow it. Nie’s case has highlighted some of the problems that plagued China’s judiciary in the past. For example, police used to play the leading role in the entire judicial process, and a suspect was more likely than not to be found guilty by the court. Lawyers, courts and procurators should learn from Nie’s case and ensure no person is wrongly convicted.
Let’s hope the case ushers in a new chapter of judicial reform, which will help the country to establish the rule of law comprehensively.
The author is a Beijing-based lawyer.