In the week since six death-row inmates were executed, there has been criticism both at home and abroad, while government officials defended the use of capital punishment.
What has been unusual has been the amount of dissembling by senior officials.
On Dec. 20, Deputy Minister of Justice Chen Shou-huang (陳守煌) told the legislature that while the ministry could carry out another execution “very soon,” it would take the national interest into consideration and respect the views of a group of experts who were reviewing Taiwan’s human rights situation. He said the next round of executions might come before the end of February. However, that very day, Minister of Justice Tseng Yung-fu (曾勇夫) was signing execution orders for the six.
Control Yuan President Wang Chien-shien (王建煊) also talked about the death penalty on Dec. 20. He said it was not necessary for the government to end capital punishment to demonstrate that it valued human rights and that the nation did not have to follow international norms that did not fit its needs.
However, he really raised eyebrows with his comment that the possibility of innocent people being executed because of errors in the criminal justice system was not a good reason to scrap the death penalty.
After all, a report by the Control Yuan in May 2010 rocked the nation by declaring that 21-year-old -Chiang Kuo-ching (江國慶), who was executed in 1997 for the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl, had been tortured by military investigators and that there had been major flaws in Chiang’s trial. The Control Yuan report led to the Military Supreme Court Prosecutors’ Office filing an extraordinary appeal with the Military Supreme Court to reopen Chiang’s case, and eventually his posthumous acquittal in September last year and the indictment of another suspect for the murder.
The repercussions of the Chiang case are still reverberating and yet Wang does not see anything wrong in killing an innocent person if it means ensuring that guilty people will also be punished.
The government has repeatedly said that Taiwan should maintain the death penalty because opinion polls show strong support for capital punishment. However, such talk avoids the fact that there are serious problems with the legal system, including insufficient defense, an inadequate death penalty defense system and the continued acceptance by judges of confessions that were extracted under torture.
For example, a defendant’s right to a public defender applies only to trials in district and high courts, not the Supreme Court, even though the Supreme Court hearings are the final stage of death penalty cases. Poor defendants have therefore often ended up appearing before the Supreme Court without an attorney.
The Hsichih Trio case, which thankfully ended with a final acquittal, and the Chiou Ho-shun (邱和順) case are prime examples of cases that have bounced around the legal system for decades, despite the retraction of what the defendants said were tortured confessions. In the case of Chiou and his co-defendants, two public prosecutors and 10 police officers handling the case were convicted of extracting confessions through torture, yet judges have continued to include the men’s confessions in the court’s paperwork.
It is time that the nation faces up to the faults of its legal system and reintroduces a moratorium on executions while it works toward the abolition of capital punishment.
Chiang Kuo-ching was murdered because of the willingness of officials to ride roughshod over the law in a rush to judgement. Wang is wrong to think that the life of an innocent person is a price Taiwan should be willing to pay to ensure the guilty are punished severely enough. That cost is far too high.