Taiwan’s longest-running legal controversy shows no signs of being put to rest any time soon. While the Hsichih Trio may be free men, the judicial system appears determined not to admit to having done anything wrong, as shown in a ruling this week on the compensation the men should receive for their imprisonment. This is bad news not just for the men, but for the nation’s legal system as a whole.
The trio — Su Chien-ho (蘇建和), Liu Bing-lang (劉秉郎) and Chuang Lin-hsun (莊林勳) — were indicted for the March 24, 1991, murder and robbery of Wu Min-han (吳銘漢) and his wife, Yeh Ying-lan (葉盈蘭), and spent 11 years on death row after being convicted in February 1992. The main suspect, a marine named Wang Wen-hsiao (王文孝), was convicted and sentenced under military law, and executed on Jan. 11, 1992.
The trio were sentenced to death five times. However, so many questions were raised about the investigation of the case and the judicial process that five ministers of justice refused to sign execution orders.
The trio were released on their own recognizance in January 2003 and were found not guilty in September last year, bringing an end to the case — after 21 years — in accordance with the Fair and Speedy Criminal Trials Act (刑事妥速審判法), passed in April 2010.
On Dec. 27 last year, the Taiwan High Court opened a hearing on the men’s request for NT$20 million (US$686,600) in compensation for wrongful conviction and imprisonment, the first time such a suit had been filed in Taiwan. On Wednesday the court ruled that instead of the maximum compensation possible, the men should receive about NT$5 million each for the 4,170 days they spent behind bars, in accordance with the Act for Compensating Wrongful Detentions and Executions (刑事補償法).
The court said that among the factors taken into consideration were that the three were 19 when they were detained, the roles they played in the case, their degrees of responsibility for their detention and their levels of education. The court said that since the police had not tortured them, their confessions had given investigators and the courts reasonable cause to believe they were involved in the case, and the men therefore bore some responsibility for their detention.
However, the men have long claimed that their confessions were made after being tortured. Liu has told of how police officers forced him to hold a telephone book to his chest as they struck him repeatedly with a hammer, as well as hanging him upside down and pouring water and urine down his throat. Su and Chuang have also told of being beaten, of being doused with urine and having electrodes applied to their genitals.
If that is not torture, what is?
A Control Yuan investigation into alleged wrongdoings in the case, begun in March 1995, confirmed there were serious flaws at all levels — from the Hsichih police and the Shilin District Court up to the High Court. There were so many flaws that then-prosecutor-general Chen Han (陳涵) made three extraordinary appeals to the Supreme Court over the convictions, all of which were rejected before the High Court decided in May 2000 to reopen the case.
The Hsichih Trio case has been the nation’s most controversial criminal saga. The Judicial Reform Foundation said the case “prompted a revolution in criminal procedure law regarding confessions and interrogations,” and “punctured the myth that the judicial system never makes mistakes in death penalty cases.”
The trio’s lawyers have said they will appeal the compensation verdict, but no amount of compensation will ever make up for what these men have endured. However, to continue to blame them for confessions made under torture adds insult to injury.
“I’ve never been happy since I was 19,” Su was once quoted as saying.
No one should be happy with the state of the nation’s judicial system until this travesty is concluded by the men receiving the maximum compensation provided by law.