Top court to take closer look at death sentences
By Zhu Zhe
Updated: 2006-12-29 07:00

The Supreme People's Court will now take a closer look at death sentences passed by the local courts.

From January 1, it will review all death sentences in the country.

Preparations have progressed smoothly, and the court is "basically ready" to exercise the right to review and make final decisions on all death sentence cases in the country, Supreme People's Court President Xiao Yang said yesterday.

Three criminal tribunals have been set up as a supplement to the existing two, and the review team has been expanded, according to the court.

New members have been selected from local courts, lawyers and law schools, and have finished a three-month training at the Supreme People's Court.

They are currently on probation for a year before officially assuming office.

The court also spelt out details of the review process.

Each case will be reviewed by a team of three judges. They will be required to check the facts, laws applied and criminal procedures adopted.

Any testimony extracted through illegal means will be declared invalid.

During the review, judges must arraign the defendants face to face, and present their separate judgements and reasons in writing.

If the case is very complicated or there are doubts over the facts, judges can visit the place where the alleged offence took place to check details.

Xiao reiterated that courts at all levels must exercise extreme caution when passing the death sentence, and the penalty should be reserved for only an "extremely small number" of serious offenders.

"Every judgement must stand the test of time," he said.

Until 1983, the Supreme People's Court was responsible for reviewing all death penalty cases. Then, as part of a major crackdown on crime, provincial courts were given the authority to pass death sentences for serious crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and the criminal use of explosives.

However, the practice has drawn sharp criticism in recent years in the wake of some highly publicized miscarriages of justice.

Nie Shubin, a young farmer in North China's Hebei Province, was executed in 1995 after being convicted of raping and murdering a local woman. But early last year, a rape and murder suspect arrested by police confessed he had committed the crime.

To exert stricter control over the penalty, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature, adopted an amendment in October to the organic law on the people's court, ending the practice of allowing executions on the order of lower-level courts.

Experts have hailed the change, saying it will better protect human rights.

Zhao Bingzhi, president of China's Criminal Law Society and professor at the Renmin University of China, said the death sentence would be more carefully exercised after the change.

"Generally speaking, the Supreme People's Court order means fewer immediate executions," he said.

In China, capital punishment falls into two categories one in which the criminal is executed immediately after sentencing, and the other death with a two-year reprieve.

The court also made it clear that judges should exercise caution in handling cases of civil disputes or in cases where vengeance is involved when applying immediate execution.

On Tuesday, the country's top procurator also said prosecuting organs would step up supervision of the application of the death penalty next year.

Jia Chunwang, procurator-general of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, said prosecuting departments would supervise appeal hearings in death penalty cases more carefully to ensure the sentence has been properly applied.

(China Daily 12/29/2006 page2)