Change of review on death penalty vital
It is good to know that a brand new institutional layout is finally in the works for the Supreme People's Court. This will allow it to reclaim exclusive power over the review and approval of death sentences.
Reports suggest that the Supreme Court will submit a detailed plan for finalization to the central judicial authorities later this year, and the widely anticipated change can be expected sometime next year.
While this qualifies as a major reform, there is still a pressing need to sort out the discord between existing laws.
A death sentence means the deprivation of a person's right to life, and so affects all other rights.
With that in mind, architects of the country's judiciary have displayed impressive prudence in the application of death sentences.
The first version of China's Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure Law, and Organic Law for People's Courts, all promulgated on July 1, 1979, shared a same clause.
That said that all death sentences, except those delivered by the Supreme People's Court itself, should be reported to the Supreme People's Court for examination and approval.
But the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), the State legislature, broke that link and decentralized power on this issue in 1980 to facilitate a nationwide crackdown on criminal activity.
It codified the decentralization in 1983 with the revised Organic Law, authorizing the Supreme People's Court to transfer to People's High Courts, the judicial authority at provincial level, its power of death sentence review for violent crimes such as homicide, rape, robbery and setting off explosions, "when necessary."
In an authorization statement published that year, the Supreme Court reduced its corresponding jurisdiction to crimes of anti-revolution and serious economic crimes, such as embezzlement of public fund. In addition to that, six High Courts in the country were entrusted to review death sentences for drug-related crimes by Chinese nationals.
Passed by the NPC, the Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure Law have higher authority as basic laws than the Organic Law, which was enacted by the NPC Standing Committee. But the latter became more important on this issue.
Since the second instance is the last instance in Chinese judicial practice, and Intermediate Courts are designated first-instance courts for crimes involving death sentences, appeals are sent to the High Courts.
High Courts often review death sentences made by themselves so their supervisory role here is only nominal.
As different courts and judges may have different criteria in applying death sentences, it is likely that a criminal sentenced to death in one province might receive a different sentence in another.
That is not justice as we understand it.
The anticipated change regarding death sentences is not a simple return of power to the Supreme Court. It represents a deeper understanding of the spirit of modern jurisprudence.
To clear the ground for it, the NPC Standing Committee has decided to revise the Organic Law of People's Courts in 2005. The revised draft will reportedly abolish the 1983 addition that decentralized death sentences in the first place.
That is a must for the unity and authority of our national laws.