The Supreme People's Court (SPC) overturned about 15 percent of the death sentences handed down by high courts in the first half of this year, a senior court official said on Thursday.
The high rejection rate shows how cautious the judiciary has been with capital punishment after the SPC took back the right to review death sentences from lower courts on Jan 1 last year.
Gao Jinghong, presiding judge of the SPC's Third Criminal Law Court, said the majority of the death sentences were overturned because they were inappropriate or lacked sufficient evidence.
Top court officials, including Chief Justice Xiao Yang and Gao himself, believe China is following the global trend of reducing the death sentence. Capital punishment could be abolished when social conditions demand so, but for now it has to stay.
The SPC took back the right to review the death sentence after 26 years to prevent the miscarriage of justice, and it is widely considered the most important reform in China's criminal justice system.
The SPC has been working to ensure that the death sentence is handed down to only those who have committed extremely serious or heinous crimes that lead to grave social consequences.
The highest court exercises extreme caution in handing down the death sentence to those guilty of killing family members or neighbors over disputes, Gao said.
People who plead guilty, compensate the family members of the victims, or are pardoned by the latter are generally given more lenient punishments.
The same applies to people who provide important information or who are accomplices in criminal cases.
Though fewer people are getting capital punishment now, Gao and other judiciary officials have to deal with a new pressure. "Some people are strong believers in 'the man who kills shall die'. In many cases they call for immediate execution of the murderers."
"High courts and the SPC are often under tremendous pressure because of this."
Gao said the transition work has been smooth and orderly and the quality of trials for capital punishment has improved and is more secure.
Criminal cases in which the guilty face immediate execution undergo first trials in intermediate courts, second trials in provincial high courts and final reviews by the SPC.
Death sentences with a two-year suspension, too, are handed down. The intermediate and high courts both can pass such a verdict, but intermediate courts need the high courts' approval for review.
Chen Weidong, professor of criminal law in Renmin University, said capital punishment is a powerful deterrent against crime, especially because the country is in transition and the rate of violent crimes is still high.