Fri, Aug 05, 2011 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Saving the face of justice

After 23 years behind bars as his murder and kidnapping trials dragged on, Chiou Ho-shun (邱和順) finally knows his fate — he has been sentenced to be killed by the state.

Taiwan’s longest-lasting legal case came to an abrupt close on Friday last week, in a way that reaffirms both the need to reform the nation’s judicial system and the inherent difficulty of doing so.

The Chiou trial had been cited for years by judicial reform advocates as an example of the need to pass an act that would speed up legal procedures, finally resulting in the Speedy Criminal Trials Act (刑事妥速審判法), which sets a maximum detention period of eight years for accused murderers. However, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold his controversial death sentence shows how even with the best of intentions, judicial reform can backfire.

Given the entrenched culture of “face” in the judicial system in Taiwan, prosecutors and judges do everything they can to avoid ever admitting that they were wrong, especially in cases of this magnitude that have been shunted back and forth for years.

In the case of Chiou, who was accused of kidnapping and murdering a nine-year-old boy more than two decades ago, prosecutors relied solely on dubious confessions that were allegedly obtained through the use of threats and torture.

Although Chiou’s guilt in another murder case — the kidnapping and killing of insurance agent Ko Hung Yu-lan (柯洪玉蘭) — is fairly cut and dry, it was much harder to link him to the slaying of the nine-year-old Lu Cheng (陸正): There was no forensic evidence to back up the case — no murder weapon, no body and no clothing belonging to the victim. However, the courts admitted the suspect’s confessions to the crime because to throw them out would have meant admitting they had been obtained wrongfully or faked altogether.

Amazingly, this “evidence” was still deemed admissible even after two prosecutors and 10 police officers involved in the case were impeached for using violence to obtain a speedy confession.

To some observers, it has long been obvious that the Chiou case was problematic. Charges were dropped against most of the defendants, barring Chiou and two accomplices, as discrepancies and contradictions emerged in the accounts of those involved.

However, dropping the case entirely without a fall guy would have required prosecutors, police and judges to admit to completely fouling up the case and in the minds of those running the courts, that would have been tantamount to admitting that the judicial system had failed.

The case was kicked back and forth like a soccer ball, with seemingly no end in sight. The High Court did not want to drop the charges, but the Supreme Court did not want to uphold them. In the meantime, Chiou spent most of his adult life in jail.

After years of this farcical situation, along came the Speedy Criminal Trials Act, which judicial reform activists hoped would finally put an end to never--ending cases like Chiou’s. However, they underestimated the culture of “face” and the determination of the courts to protect their reputation at any cost.

With just a year to go before Chiou’s case would have run out of time and the courts would have been forced to drop the case, the Supreme Court apparently felt that time had come for it to clean its docket.

Instead of doing the right thing and dropping the charges against Chiou for the murder of Lu Cheng, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty, exhausting Chiou’s final appeal on that case.

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