China’s Supreme Court announces decision to rehear case of man executed 21 years ago

On Monday, June 6th, China’s highest court made the decision to rehear the case of a man, Nie Shubin, who was executed 21 years ago. The Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) decision came after a year and half long investigation by the Higher Court of Shandong Province which found a lack of conclusive evidence to suggest guilt in Nie’s case.

Nie Shubin was convicted and executed in 1995 for the murder and rape of a woman in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province in North China. In 2005, a different man, Wang Shujin, confessed to the crime that Nie was convicted of. Wang, who also confessed to the rape and murder of three other women in Hebei Province from 1994 through 1995, had his fourth confession dismissed and invalidated by the courts. Prosecutors argued against the validity of Wang’s confession, stating that there were significant contradictions  between the case files and Wang’s statements. While Wang was summarily found guilty of his other convictions and sentenced to death in 2007, his confession to Nie’s case led to a widespread outrage and repeated calls for a retrial. In 2014, the SPC finally ordered the reexamination of Nie’s case.

The investigation by the Shandong court, which was extended four times due to complexities in the case, concluded that there were major inconsistencies during various aspects of the trial and conviction process. Among these inconsistencies included fabrication of Nie’s signature on six different legal documents. It also concluded that the possibility that someone else had committed the crime could not be ruled out, and recommended that the SPC rehear the case. The investigation also looked into the claims of the usage of torture and physical assaults raised previously by Nie’s lawyer, Zhang Jinghe. It ruled out the possibility of torture used by the police to force a confession, stating that Zhang had observed Nie to be of sound mind and body during the trial. Zhang himself, it said, was unable to participate in the investigation as a stroke has rendered him with speech impediments.

The SPC, which agreed with the suggestions in the report, announced that it will establish a retrial panel for Nie’s case and that it would announce any developments to the public. Nie’s mother, who has been fighting for years for a retrial, is said to have broken down in tears upon receiving news of the decision.

With estimated annual executions numbering in the thousands, China is the world’s leader in state-conducted executions. While the number has decreased in recent years as a result of the Supreme People’s Court regaining the authority to review and approve death penalty cases, this number is still over 30 times the United States’ annual executions. The most recent estimate for the U.S. and China is 28 and over a thousand respectively in 2015.  Nie’s case is also not the first execution that has faced public scrutiny. In 1996, an Inner-Mongolian teenager named Huugilt was executed for raping and murdering a woman, a crime that another man later admitted to committing. 27 officials were subsequently penalized for this wrongful conviction, and Huugilt’s family received the equivalent of $200,000 from the Chinese government.

China’s immense execution rate along with its history of wrongfully convicting defendants in capital cases has led the international community to call for increased transparency in China’s execution record. China has very limited press freedom. However, rule of law is an area where Chinese media outlets are very aggressive in reporting misdeeds and uncovering scandals. While judicial independence is still a long way away in China, tighter media scrutiny over cases such as Nie’s and Huugilt’s will subject China’s legal system to more accountability.

The Duihua Foundation has detailed information on the case of Nie Shubing. For more information on Nie Shubin’s case in Chinese, click here.