Seventeen years ago, a five-year-old girl surnamed Hsieh (謝) was raped and killed at the Air Force Operations Command in Taipei. Following a forced confession, the court found Chiang Kuo-ching (江國慶) guilty and he was wrongfully executed.
Now Hsu Jung-chou (許榮洲), who prosecutors said was the true culprit, has been acquitted on appeal due to a lack of evidence. The lack of conclusive evidence is the result of police and prosecutors’ ineffectiveness and perfunctory crime scene investigation.
The handling of the case reveals the crudeness of the nation’s military law, and sloppy judicial process.
The military wanted a quick solution to the case and instructed the fourth counterintelligence unit at the Air Force General Command to handle the investigation, which is illegal, since that unit does not have any judicial rights.
The unit used illegal methods to extract a confession and the military court conducted a speedy trial.
A year later, Chiang was executed. Only after several years of petitions by Chiang’s family was his wrongful execution addressed and the guilty verdict overturned.
When Chiang’s innocence was proven, the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office reopened the investigation. Following a confession and other evidence such as a palm print at the scene of the crime, prosecutors charged Hsu with the murder.
In the first trial, he was given a prison sentence of 18 years, but the High Court has now acquitted him because his “confession” was contradicted by autopsy findings.
In addition, medical examinations have found that Hsu has mental health issues and that this was the reason for the discrepancies between his confessions. That the palm print was his was deemed insufficient to prove that he had killed the girl.
The second trial was held on strict rules of evidence requiring that Hsu be acquitted if there were any reasonable doubt about his guilt, and he was therefore acquitted and a second wrongful verdict was avoided.
The Judicial Reform Foundation said that the standards set in this case should be applied to Hsu as well as any other defendants. This is the main lesson to be drawn from the case.
If neither Chiang nor Hsu are guilty, we must find out who is. The original military investigation was rushed and many smaller pieces of evidence were not sufficiently investigated, which led to many mistakes. Conducting the investigation again will require a great deal of effort and the perpetrator might never be found.
Many years have passed since the murder, and forensic methods have since developed by leaps and bounds, while police knowledge about how to handle cases has seen only limited improvement. The result is that investigative standards remain too slack.
Looking at the recent double homicide in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Bali District (八里) and the case of the decapitated head found in a Chiayi County lavatory: While police have identified a suspect in the latter case, there is no conclusive evidence. The Bali case is like a soap opera, with the media coming up with a different story every day, while police are unable to prove the involvement of the suspect and solve the case.
As the media are playing up the case, pressure to solve it increases. This makes it increasingly difficult for police and prosecutors to take a calm and detached approach to the investigation, which only increases the risk of another wrongful verdict.
Police and prosecutors must take into account the wrongful execution and the acquittal of yet another suspect in the Hsieh murder case.