Sun, Aug 29, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Guilty by association?

A new forensic study in Taiwan’s most infamous murder case found no evidence against the three co-defendants and concludes that the ‘Hsichih Trio’ most likely were not present at the scene of the 1991 crime

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

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Early in the morning of March 24, 1991, a married couple were stabbed to death in their apartment in Sijhih (汐止), Taipei County.

Wu Min-han (吳銘漢) and Yeh Ying-lan

(葉盈蘭) were found on the floor of their master bedroom. The scene bore testimony to a frenzied murder: The walls, furniture and floor were splattered with blood. The victims’ clothes and blankets were soaked in it. Their bodies bore a total of 79 wounds, mostly on their upper torsos and heads.

Within a year, a man whose fingerprints were found at the scene was convicted and sentenced to death. Wang Wen-hsiao (王文孝) was serving in the military at the time and was swiftly tried and executed under military law.

But Wang was not the only suspect. Three civilians were also arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. Their story took a very different turn. Nineteen years later, Su Chien-ho (蘇建和), Liu Bin-lang (劉秉郎) and Chuang Lin-hsun (莊林勳) are still at trial.

Known in English as the “Hsichih Trio” — a reference to Sijhih, but with an alternate spelling — their tale is Taiwan’s most controversial murder case.

Defense lawyers have long claimed that the trio were tortured into confessing and convicted without a shred of evidence. Now, the lawyers hope, a new forensic study by a prominent expert will settle the matter once and for all.

Su, Liu and Chuang were 19 years old at the time of their arrest in August 1991. Wang had been detained a few days earlier, and prosecutors did not believe his claims that he committed the crime alone. During repeated interrogations, he changed his statement, adding a number of accomplices, including his brother, Wang Wen-jung (王文忠).

Wang Wen-jung was detained and confessed — allegedly under torture — to acting as a lookout. He named three friends as accomplices: Su, Liu and Chuang. He later retracted his confession, citing torture.

Su, Liu and Chuang were detained and they, too, confessed. They also retracted their statements later, citing the same reason.

In 1995, the Hsichih Trio’s story seemed to be finished. They had lost their trials at the District and High Courts, and the Supreme Court, which has the final word in all death penalty cases, approved the sentence and sent them to death row.

But the sentence wasn’t carried out. Lawyers and human rights activists pushed to reopen the case, while justice ministers repeatedly balked at signing the execution order. Finally, in 2000, defense lawyers scored a victory: The High Court granted a retrial.

Three years later, the ruling seemed to seal that victory: Su, Liu and Chuang were found not guilty and released.

When the case proceeded to the Supreme Court, however, the ruling was rejected and another retrial was ordered. This time, the retrial ended with a guilty judgment in 2007. Now the men found themselves facing the death penalty again, but in a bizarre twist, the judges chose not to re-detain them while the Supreme Court reviewed the latest judgment.

A few months later, the Supreme Court rejected the second ruling, too, ordering yet another retrial. Critics accused the court of trying to dodge controversy by simply refusing to bring the case to an end.

Today, the men are still free. Their latest retrial is drawing to a close, with the ruling expected late next month. Regardless of the outcome, this may not be the last retrial, as the judgment will have to win the Supreme Court’s approval.

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