As he awaited his sentence from the Taiwan High Court in Taipei on Monday, Chiou Ho-shun (邱和順) made a short statement to the judges: He wanted to see the evidence against him. It was a simple request and a basic right of every defendant in a criminal case. But the evidence against Chiou is dubious at best and his prosecution has been troubled by disturbing procedural violations.
Then the verdict was handed down: Chiou was sentenced to death, while his codefendants received prison terms in their 11th trial for a 1987 kidnapping and murder. The case, Taiwan’s longest running criminal proceeding, does not end here, however: It now returns to the Supreme Court, which can be expected to reject the High Court’s sentence for the 11th time based on any number of glaring flaws.
Chiou’s defense counsel, the Judicial Reform Foundation and a team of lawyers from the Legal Aid Foundation have raised countless objections that could have justified an acquittal by the High Court. A few of these include the fact that the defendants were tortured during interrogation; that fingerprints and other forensic evidence did not match any of them; and that police admitted in 2003 to covering up a confession to the crime by a man executed for other offenses.
That the High Court has stood by its previous sentences indicates problems with the system of retrial. If the Supreme Court finds flaws in a case, it is sent back to the same branch of the High Court. The judges may be different, but pressure not to embarrass one’s colleagues by producing a different ruling is great. It is a sad reflection on the judiciary that the High Court has persisted in reaching the same conclusion without addressing the concerns of the Supreme Court.
One of the most troubling aspects of this case is the High Court’s dogged inclusion of the defendants’ taped confessions as evidence, while at the same time recognizing that violence and physical threats were used during the investigation. This flouts Article 156 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (刑事訴訟法), which bars testimony obtained under duress from being submitted as evidence. The court and prosecutors have made a mockery of this by maintaining that it is sufficient to exclude from court only the portion of the taped interrogations in which evidence of torture can be clearly heard.
The three defendants sentenced on Monday seem caught in an endless cycle, bouncing between the High Court and Supreme Court. It is a state of limbo that has violated their right to a speedy trial and possibly prevented the case from gaining the same public scrutiny as that of the Hsichih Trio, another death penalty case riddled with flaws. If Chiou ever ends up on death row, his case has the potential to draw the same level of attention — and condemnation.
The strong focus in Taiwan on protecting the rights of victims of crime must be praised, but true judicial reform must recognize that a defendant can be a victim. While political scandals and corruption cases dominate the public’s attention, little is said of the risk of wrongful convictions and other grievous judicial violations in less sensational cases.
Judicial reform also means acknowledging that a defendant, even if guilty and even in cases involving the most violent crimes, has certain inalienable rights. Handing down convictions without sufficient evidence and submitting coerced confessions as evidence have no place in a judiciary that respects human rights. Abuses by the judicial system can never be justified.