Supreme People’s Court tweaks capital punishment review procedure

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 3.28.09 PMSeveral days ago, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued the brief judicial interpretation, translated below:

Supreme People’s Court

Reply Concerning issues related to the Application of Article 225 (para 2) of the Criminal Procedure Law

Approved by the 1686th meeting of the Judicial Committee of the Supreme People’s Court, in effect from 24 June 2016

Fa Yi(2016) #13

To the Henan Higher People’s Court:

We have received your request for instructions concerning the application of Article 225(2) of the Criminal Procedure. After consideration, we respond as follows:

I.  For cases remanded to the second instance people’s court for retrial by the Supreme People’s Court, on the basis of “People’s Republic of China Criminal Procedure Law” Article 239 (2) [if the Supreme People’ s Court disapproves the capital punishment sentence, it may remand the case for retrial or revise the sentence] and Article 353 of the Interpretation of the “Supreme People’s Court on the application of the People’s Republic of China Criminal Procedure Law [where the Supreme People’s Court issues a ruling on non-approval of the death penalty sentenced under a case, it may remand the case to the people’s court of second instance or the people’s court of first instance for retrial, depending on the actual circumstances of the case…], having ruled not to approve the death penalty,and  regardless of whether the people’s court of second instance had previously sent the case back to the first instance court on the grounds that original judgment’s facts were unclear or evidence was insufficient; in principle, it must not be sent back to the original first instance court for retrial; if there are special circumstances requiring the case to be sent back to the first instance court for a retrial, it must be submitted to the Supreme Court for approval.

II. in cases where the Supreme People’s Court had ruled to disapprove the death penalty and remanded the case to the second instance people’s court for retrial, and the second instance people’s court had remanded the case to the first instance court according to special circumstance, after the first instance court has issued its judgment and the defendant has appealed or the people’s procuratorate has made a protest, the second instance people’s court should issue a judgment or ruling according to law, and must not send the case back for re-trial, according to the specifics of the case, which had sent the case to the first instance court for retrial.

So replied.

_________________________________________________________

What is this and what does this mean?

This is a judicial interpretation by the SPC in the form of a reply, as explained here.  It is a reply (批复) to a “request for instructions” from a lower court relating to an issue of general application in a specific case.  The Henan Higher People’s Court had submitted a request for instructions, likely with two or more views on the issue, but the lower court’s request is not publicly available.  It is likely that practice among provincial courts had been inconsistent, and therefore the SPC is harmonizing judicial practice through this reply.  As required by the SPC’s  regulations on judicial interpretations, it must be approved by the SPC’s judicial committee as a judicial interpretation.

This gives further details to the SPC’s capital review procedures, requiring second instance (generally provincial level courts) to hear retrials of cases remanded by the SPC and not instructing those courts not send cases back to the first instance court for retrial.  It also requires the second instance court to rule on a defendant’s appeal or procuratorate’s protest and not remand the case back to the first instance court, expediting the final consideration of these cases and limiting the number of remands of these cases.

Is this a positive development for the protection of the rights of the defendants (the defendants in the typical drugs cases announced by the SPC recently were mostly peasants), by requiring the second instance court to hear these cases, away from the public pressure where the crime occurred?  In a 2013 article, criminal defense lawyer Sun Zhongwei described the pressure on a local first and second instance court is under from the victim’s family and the local Party committee and government, and how the institutions use delay and remanding the case to the procuratorate and public security for additional investigation to avoid making difficult decisions that will alienate local authorities.What has the role of defense counsel been in these cases?  Have most defendants been advised by counsel? Was the delay in final resolution in these cases an issue discussed by the Central Political Legal Committee?

What was the rationale for issuing this interpretation at this time?  Is it a measure to promote the efficiency of the courts, by expediting finality in criminal punishment, so that the courts can announce in a timely manner their crime fighting accomplishments and typical cases?A headline on one of the SPC’s websites  reporting on 30% increase in drugs crime convictions in the provincial level courts may indicate which is valued more–“People’s courts across the country cracked down hard on drug crime.”

Or is it linked to planned reforms to the criminal justice system and improvements to the legal aid system for criminal defendants approved by Xi Jinping and other top leaders on 27 June?

Advertisements

Supreme People’s Court: new regulations on legal representation in death penalty review cases

dscn3764

complex where death penalty review undertaken

On 29 January, the Supreme People’s Court issued regulations on legal representation in death penalty cases, Measures for Considering the Views of Defense Lawyers in Death Penalty Review Cases (最高人民法院关于办理死刑复核案件听取辩护律师意见的办法) (translation available here).  This blog previously flagged that the Court was drafting them and that they were meant to be issued by the end of the year.  They will become effective on February 1.  They  were accompanied by a brief question and answer session with a “responsible person” from the Court’s #1 Criminal Division. presumably the head or deputy head.  These brief regulations provide important protections to those sentenced to death, and are part of the Court’s efforts to minimize mistaken cases.

The regulations permit defense lawyers to review the defendant’s file, provide additional evidence and have a hearing with the judges handling the case, although not a formal court hearing. The Court has created a room for lawyers to use to review death penalty review materials. The transcript of the hearing (as signed off by the defense lawyer) is to be included in the case file.  However, defense counsel has only two weeks to submit its additional opinion in the case.  Presumably this deadline can be extended if counsel provides justification.

The regulations set out the telephone numbers of the Court’s criminal divisions, which review death penalty cases.  This blogpost translated a chart drafted by the Chinese magazine Southern Weekend setting out jurisdiction of the various divisions.

This is an important step forward in protecting the rights of criminal defendants and is the product of many years of law reform efforts.

 

Updated with further analysis: What does the 4th Plenum mean for death penalty reviews?

video interview in a death penalty review case

video interview in a death penalty review case

In a  press report in Southern Weekend last month (summarized in this report), the Supreme People’s Court (the Court) revealed that  an important legal reform related to death penalty reviews is forthcoming–institutionalizing legal representation in death penalty reviews.  This development, and others still in the works, are likely linked to the following provisions in the 4th Plenum Decision:

  • For appeals from dissatisfaction with effective judgments or decisions of judicial organs, gradually implement a system of lawyer representation. Bring appellants unable to hire a lawyer within the scope of legal aid.
  • Advance systemic reform in litigation with trial at the center;
  • complete effective guards against unjust, false and wrongfully decided cases.
  • bring about a system of lifetime responsibility for case quality and wrongful cases accountability system.

The Southern Weekend report has now been more fully summarized by the Duihua Foundation.

(This reform caught my attention because because I raised this issue when conducting an interview at the Supreme People’s Court in the early 1990’s, when researching my 1993 Supreme People’s Court article in the Journal of Chinese Law.)

Some background on death penalty review in the Court

As many others have described, death penalty review is carried out solely within the Court (in contrast to the period that I wrote my article) in an administrative procedure (my article describes the procedure at the time, and other articles describe the current process). The Southern Weekend article describes it as taking place in an unmarked office building away from  Court headquarters, guarded by a member of the Armed Police.

The Court has increased the number of criminal tribunals from two (when I wrote about this procedure 20 years ago in my article) to five tribunals, but the Court has not issued regulations setting out their jurisdiction.  According to the Southern Weekend reporters, four of the tribunals, which review cases based on geography and subject matter, have about 70 staff (both judges and support staff), while one has about 50 staff and reviews cases only on a subject matter basis. According to Southern Weekend, there is some flexibility in the jurisdiction of the criminal tribunals.(See this report for a translation of Southern Weekend’s chart.)

Institutionalizing legal representation in death penalty reviews

The Southern Weekend article reported that a senior member of the one of the criminal tribunals had revealed that the Court has drafted regulations on institutionalizing legal representation in death penalty review and it is hoped that they will be issued before year end.  According to the article, the draft regulations are entitled:

死刑复核案件听取辩护律师意见的若干规定 (Regulations on Considering the Views of Defense Lawyers in Death Penalty Review Cases).

This reform was flagged in Article 240 of the 2012 Criminal Procedure Law:

When the Supreme People’s Court reviews a death case, it should examine the defendant; if the defense attorney requests, it should hear the opinion of the defense attorney.

Article 42 of the 2012 Supreme People’s Court interpretation of the Criminal Procedure Law provides:

When the SPC performs final review of a death penalty case and the defendant has not retained a defender, the legal aid organization shall be notified to appoint a lawyer to provide him a defense.

A statement of principle in an a Court interpretation does not translate immediately into systemic reform.  It is apparent from the Southern Weekend article, a 2013 article on the Court’s website, and other sources that the mechanism for doing so is being considered within the Court and that local justice bureaus are implementing regulatory changes.

In the Southern Weekend article, a Court judge pointed out what the academics and defense lawyers have been saying, that many persons sentenced to death are from the bottom of society and do not have a lawyer defending them. (It appears from this interview with the President of the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court that Zhejiang has been taking the lead in working with the justice authorities to have legal aid provided to criminal defendants.)

In an article earlier this year in the Legal Daily (organ of the Communist Party Central Political Legal Committee), Professor Liu Wenren of the Law Institute, China Academy of Social Sciences emphasized the necessity of involving lawyers in the death penalty review process.  A Chinese lawyer has established a website for death penalty review lawyers, highlighting cases where legal representation has been effective.  Jiangsu province justice department has implemented  regulations on giving defense lawyers rights in death penalty review cases.

It is unclear what provisions will be contained in these regulations, but it is hoped that they include a provision for legal aid as well as rights for lawyers to review the case file.

Changing the form of death penalty review: when will the time come for this reform?

It appears that the Court is considering changing the form of death penalty review to a hearing-centered procedure.  (Dean Zhao Bingzhi of Beijing Normal University, College of Criminal Law Science, Professor Liu Wenren, and  others have been advocating this for some years (see this in this 2012 interview with Professor Zhao in Legal Daily).) Movement on this issue can be seen from the following:

  • In June, 2013, the Court held its first hearing in a death penalty review case, reported here. In July, 2013, Legal Daily published a follow-up article in which it was suggested that more hearings will take place.
  • In 2013, the Court website published an article (written by a Jiangxi judge) on deficiencies in the death penalty review procedure, suggesting that a hearing procedure be adopted.
  • In July, 2014, the China Law Society held a training session for defense lawyers in death penalty cases, at which four of the five criminal tribunal heads spoke.

The Supreme People’s Court Observer understands these developments to be linked to the goal in the 4th Plenum Decision of bringing about a system of lifetime responsibility for case quality and a wrongful cases accountability system. Going to a hearing procedure for death penalty review cases in which defendants have legal representation would go far to “complete effective guards against unjust, false and wrongfully decided cases” and at the same time would better protect the hundreds of Court judges who will bear lifetime responsibility for their decisions in death penalty cases.

If there are errors in the above analysis, please use the comment function.

Those further interested in this important topic can refer to one or more of the many articles, books, and reports in English (and Chinese).  In contrast to the early 90’s, death penalty review in China has now attracted the attention of major scholars and international organizations.