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Double jeopardy: a matter of "face"

Part V: Why did it take the court 19 years to change its mind on the Hsichih Three?

Still, things have improved since the days when the Hsichih Three were first hauled in. This and other cases have spurred calls for reform. "The legal process is more open, police don't rough you up anymore," said Katz. "You can't get away with it anymore, like you could in the 1990s."

Taiwan has adopted a law putting a time limit on cases like the Hsichih Three’s. No longer can prosecutors drag out a case indefinitely. Legal reform advocates are also pushing for changes to how judges are chosen and promoted, to shake up a hidebound hierarchy where junior judges are afraid to go against their elders.

Taiwan now requires all police interrogations to be video-taped; that's still not the case in Japan, according to Shau, the member of the defense team, who also works for a human rights foundation. He said that neither Japan nor China had a historical idea of human rights, but that "Taiwan is different."

Unlike China and more so than Japan, Taiwan has an independent media, independent businesses and a thriving civil society with active non-governmental organizations. "All these can influence the government to support human rights," he said.

Taiwan is taking human rights concepts from the West and adapting them to what is "suitable" for Taiwan, he said.

"Some people say, 'You are Asian,' or 'You are Chinese.' Why do they say that? I am myself. There's no such thing as 'Asian people' — we are only individuals," said Shau. "A lot of people in Taiwan have a new belief in individual rights."

He called this a marked contrast to China, where the Communist Party government controls the justice system, sharply limits civil society and scorns human rights as a foreign annoyance. "In mainland China, if the government doesn't help you, no one can help you," he said. "In Taiwan, if the government can't help you, we are there to help. That's democracy."

As flawed as the Hsichih Three case had been, it could be worse, he said. "Because they are in Taiwan, they are still alive," he said. "In China they would have been killed already."

Mixed emotions

None of the prosecutors showed up on Nov. 12, when the verdict was read. Only Wu, the older brother of one of the victims, sat quietly on their side of the courtroom, a lone figure facing a phalanx of black-and-white robed defense lawyers, and, to his left, the Hsichih Three.

The spectators’ galley was packed, mostly with students and Hsichih Three supporters. The three judges took their places behind the raised desk, a tower of documents piled unsteadily in front of them among the tea cups.

The court police ordered everyone to rise and then the head judge read out the verdict — not guilty. Gasps and murmurs came up from the crowd.

Su Chien-ho, surrounded by reporters, after he was declared innocent on Nov. 12, 2010. (Jonathan Adams/GlobalPost)

Wu left the courtroom quickly with a blank expression. Outside he told reporters that he would try to get prosecutors to appeal again. "The injustice against my younger brother and his wife ..." he said, his voice breaking. "I don't know when it can be made right."

In the courtroom, Su Chien-ho hugged his lawyer for a long time, holding on until the lawyer’s eyes turned puffy. Outside, the three defendants and their lawyers gave a press conference, surrounded by a mob of TV cameras, microphones and well-wishers.

Their supporters started chanting "Justice, jiayou [an expression of encouragement]!,” "Taiwan, jiayou!"

Su, stopped by a reporter on the sidewalk outside the court, made a few comments. Then he turned and quickly loped away down the street, leaving the chants, lawyers, students and cops behind. He was free again.

Huang Guo-rong and Yang Chia-nin assisted with this report.

Read more from Double jeopardy:

Part I: a look at the death penalty in Asia

Part II: victims' families seek justice

Part III: trend toward abolition

Part IV: presumed guilty