Last Thursday an extraordinary appeal filed on behalf of death-row inmate Hsu Tzu-chiang (
The late US Supreme Court justice William J. Brennan once said that "perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent." Brennan also said that capital punishment's fatal flaw is that it treats people as objects to be toyed with and discarded. While opponents and proponents of capital punishment will probably never reach a consensus on whether the death penalty constitutes cruel and inhumane punishment, they do agree on the inherent wrong, if not evil, of executing the innocent.
In fact, no issue presented by capital punishment is more disturbing to the public than the prospect that innocent people might be executed because of errors in the investigations and the trial process. It is at odds with the most fundamental criminal justice concept, namely, that punishment must be handed out based on culpability. The deterrence factor of capital punishment fails each time an innocent person is wrongfully executed.
Unfortunately, the possibility of such events happening are not rare, in Taiwan, China, the US or the handful of other nations that retain the death penalty. The growing number of people in the US exonerated after being convicted and sentenced to death should be enough to give anyone pause. American Civil Liberties Union statistics show that almost 100 people have been released from death row in the US as of last month because their convictions were overturned. Many of those people were freed as a result of the work of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, a non-profit legal clinic. The project has found that some of the most common factors leading to wrongful convictions are mistaken identification, prosecutorial or police misconduct, bad lawyering, false confessions and false witness testimony.
Hsu was convicted of a 1995 kidnapping and murder based on the confessions of two alleged accomplices. One of those men admitted in 2000 that he had incriminated Hsu simply because he had a grudge against him. The unreliability of confessions obtained by police in Taiwan, who are notorious for using physical and psychological coercion to obtain the results they desire, goes without saying. Taiwan's legal code, in fact, prohibits conviction based solely on confessions.
The long-running efforts to reverse the convictions of the Hsichih Trio are proof of the determination of many within Taiwan's legal system to avoid embarrassment by exposing judicial errors to public scrutiny. But what is the cost to society of preserving a system that executes inmates without a chance for their claims to be thoroughly and fairly examined? The Control Yuan's findings alone should have been enough impetus to win Hsu a retrial. The risk of an innocent person being executed is not one that people in Taiwan should be willing to take.