Will Nie’s case pre­vent wrong court ver­dicts?

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - VIEWS -

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.


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