While much of the nation’s focus has been on the protests over the service trade pact, life goes on.
So does death. Note the government’s recent reaction to criticism over the continued use of the death penalty. On Wednesday, Amnesty International released its annual survey on the use of capital punishment. Amnesty said that while far fewer nations employ the death penalty, there was a 15 percent rise in the number of executions last year — to at least 778 — of which 538 were in Iran and Iraq. The group criticized Taiwan for executing six prisoners, sentencing seven more people to death and a lack of transparency over the executions.
The Ministry of Justice responded on Thursday that it would continue to employ the death penalty after it had checked that those sentenced to death — currently 52 — had not petitioned the Council of Grand Justices or made an extraordinary appeal for retrial. Deputy Minister of Justice Chen Ming-tang (陳明堂) said that the nation cannot be compared with other countries because of differences in the law and strong public sentiment in favor of capital punishment.
What made the ministry’s reaction especially notable was another development on Thursday in Japan. Iwao Hakamada, 78, who had spent more than 45 years on death row for the 1966 murders of a family, was released from prison after a district court revoked his death sentence and ordered a retrial.
Hakamada confessed to the murders after 20 straight days of interrogation, but later retracted the confession. A DNA analysis showed that blood stains on clothing that the police alleged the murderer had worn did not match Hakamada’s and that the pants were too small for him. Hakamada spent a total of 48 years in prison and most of his time on death row was spent in solitary confinement. Yet it now appears that after almost half a century, a wrong has been righted — a wrong that would have been impossible to amend if the death sentence had been carried out.
Taiwan does not need to look to Japan — or any other country — for examples of miscarriages of justice based on forced confessions.
Just last week the Supreme Court upheld the Taiwan High Court’s not guilty verdict for Hsu Jung-chou (許榮洲), who has confessed — seven times — to the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl in 1996. He was charged in May 2011 and sentenced to 18 years in prison in December 2012. However, his confessions do not match the findings of the autopsy.
The problem is that Hsu was indicted only after Chiang Kuo-ching (江國慶), the airman initially convicted of the crime and executed in 1997 at the age of 21, was proven innocent after a 14-year battle by his family. A Control Yuan investigation found that Chiang had been tortured into confessing.
And then there is the Hsichih Trio — Su Chien-ho (蘇建和), Liu Bing-lang (劉秉郎) and Chuang Lin-hsun (莊林勳) — who spent 11 years on death row before being released on appeal and finally cleared by the Taiwan High Court in 2011 after a 21-year struggle to clear their names.
Convicted individuals can be cleared years after being sentenced, sometimes due to scientific advances such as DNA testing or because other evidence is found proving their innocence. This alone is reason enough not to rush through a sentence of death, no matter how heinous the crime. However, in countries where confessions are seen as the bedrock of trials, including Japan and Taiwan, there is even more reason to tread warily, given a history of forced confessions.
The government insists that it cannot abolish the death penalty because the majority of the public support the ultimate sanction. It says it is trying to educate the public to accept change. However there has been little to show for its supposed “education” efforts. Criticism of Taiwan’s use of the death penalty calls for more than just the standard knee-jerk reaction by the justice ministry. It is time the government lived up to its promise to promote an alternative.