Death sentence, sense of injustice and public opinion in China

Jia Jinglong

Jia Jinglong

The sense of injustice is spreading in China, and it is always fueled by cases that ordinary Chinese can grasp that violate their basic, widely-shared principles of fairness and humanity. This case blatantly demonstrates the inequality of the system. Another poor villager executed while well-connected murderers are often spared. Killing an official, however cruel or arbitrary his misconduct may have been, usually results in harsher punishment than killing a farmer. But much more is involved in Jia’s case. Housing demolition and its association with corruption and failure to observe prescribed acquisition procedures have sparked huge resentment and popular reactions, of course.

Moreover, there is often a denial of due process – fair criminal procedure – in this instance reportedly by not allowing competent counsel to take part in the defense in a timely manner and by denying defense counsel adequate time to prepare the defense.

In this case another aspect that should have been considered by the courts was the defendant’s mental state. Here, as in some earlier well-known cases, the accused had obviously been brooding for a long time about the unfairness of being deprived of his home without adequate compensation and, consequently, losing his anticipated marriage. Had this aspect been investigated by the court and psychiatric experts, as Chinese law makes possible, it might well have resulted in a diminished sentence. But Chinese courts are reluctant to inquire into the defendant’s mental condition if the victim was an important local official or a police officer..

There is also the broader question of the courts and public opinion. There have been many examples of bloodthirsty public opinion causing lenient courts to reverse their verdicts and there have been many cases of sympathetic public opinion successfully pressing courts to reduce harsh sentences. Sometimes the Party mobilizes the media in a preferred direction or at least allows a mass sentiment to develop. Chinese judges have sometimes discussed with foreign specialists the sentencing dilemmas confronting them and asked for advice and information about how other countries, including the U.S., deal with the problem.

This case may also add to the pressure in China for finding some effective way to allow ordinary people to have a say in the administration of justice. This problem has been important throughout East Asia - in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, each of which has resorted to different solutions. In China’s Henan Province, the High Court at one point claimed it was introducing an American-style jury system, but that, of course, turned out to be misleading. China’s “people’s assessors” system, imported from the USSR in the ‘50s, has long been recognized as an insignificant and inadequate way to allow laymen to sit and vote with professional judges.

Finally, as the Jia case illustrates, public speech in China is, once again, being increasingly suppressed. Will people soon be afraid of even expressing themselves in private conversations, as during the Cultural Revolution?