Hsichih case puts judiciary on trial

By Lo Shih-hsiang 羅士翔  / 

Thu, Apr 18, 2013 - Page 8

After theIR convictions for murder were overturned and they were declared innocent last year, Liu Bing-lang (劉秉郎), Chuang Lin-hsun (莊林勳) and Su Chien-ho (蘇建和) — known as the Hsichih Trio — filed a lawsuit to receive compensation for wrongful conviction and imprisonment. On April 10, the Taiwan High Court ruled that they should each be paid about NT$5 million (US$167,000) in compensation. Even if the men had each been awarded the more than NT$20 million that they had requested, it is unlikely that anyone would ever want to do such a trade.

During the many years of litigation over the Hsichih Trio’s case, the crucial issue that was argued over for so long was whether the three men had been tortured. Time passed and the battle raged on for 21 years — who would have thought that the case would have gone on for so long? Also, what does the question of whether the men were tortured have anything to do with the amount of compensation that they are owed?

According to the court, the three men were imprisoned because they confessed to the robbery and murder of Wu Min-han (吳銘漢) and his wife, Yeh Ying-lan (葉盈蘭), on March 24, 1991, which led the judges and prosecutors to jail them.

As such, the three men are therefore somewhat responsible for what happened and so they are not entitled to receive the maximum amount of compensation afforded by the Act for Compensating Wrongful Detentions and Executions (刑事補償法), the High Court ruled.

In asking the trio: “If you hadn’t done it, then why did you say that you did?” the court appears to be saying that the three men’s confessions gave judges and prosecutors no choice but to imprison them. The wrongful conviction is therefore the fault of the defendants, who kept saying that they were tortured, but could never produce any evidence to support their claims.

With the point of contention getting caught up in the tangled issue of whether the men were tortured, all the spurious indictments made by the prosecutors and the flaws in the clearly prejudicial rulings made by judges fall by the wayside.

As well as being unwilling to admit to the mistakes the courts have made, the ruling clearly demonstrates the judges’ class prejudice. In the court’s view, the three men had only completed junior or senior-high school and were manual workers, so how could they expect to be treated the same as someone with a doctorate who is unjustly detained, even just for one day?

Judging by the court’s ruling, it would seem that if a person who only has a high-school education and does not have a job is unjustly detained for one day, they would receive about NT$1,000 in compensation. However, if the person who has been unjustly detained has a doctorate, or is a judge or a legislator, they would probably be awarded a higher amount.

What about these men having been 19 years old when they were arrested, and 40 years old when they were finally pronounced not guilty? What are they supposed to make of their lives now? First, the state threw their lives away in prison, and now it tells them that the years of their lives that they spent in jail were not particularly “valuable.” What could be more absurd?

After being declared guilty and sentenced to death in 1995, the three men could have been dragged off to the execution grounds at any time. Had it not been for the determination of civic groups, and of the three prisoners themselves, they would never have been exonerated.

Nevertheless, in deliberating how much compensation they should be given, the court did not make any mention of the psychological trauma that the trio must have suffered from constantly facing the prospect of death. The court judgement completely ignores the torment the trio were subjected to as they hovered between life and death for years on end.

Courts can make mistakes — that should be something that not only judicial officials, but everyone in Taiwan can agree on. When the state has wrongfully convicted and imprisoned people, in addition to exonerating and releasing them, the least the public can expect is that the state will award them fair and reasonable monetary compensation in accordance with the law.

However, the reality in Taiwan is that the state always expects people to be a bit more forbearing and not to expect that it will make things easy for the public.

The campaign to exonerate the Hsichih Trio, save them from execution and free them from jail has been the most prominent case of wrongful conviction in Taiwan over the past 20 years and now it is being forced to again take center stage in the theater of judicial reform.

Lo Shih-hsiang is chief executive officer of the Taiwan Association for Innocence.

Translated by Julian Clegg