Editor's note: Double jeopardy is a five-part series focusing on the case of the Hsichih Three in Taiwan, which helped put the death penalty back up for debate in Asia.
TAIPEI, Taiwan — "They poured water on my face to make me afraid, like I was drowning," he recalled in a flat voice.
"They put water on a towel and put the towel on my face. They used an electric prod on my body, including my genitals. They slapped me and kicked me, and beat me with a stick, on the bottom of my feet."
The torture and questioning by police continued for more than 30 hours, he said. "I couldn't take it anymore, so I confessed.”
In an interview at the office of a human rights group in Taipei, Su Chien-ho, the most outspoken of the “Hsichih Three,” re-told the story he's been telling for nearly 20 years of his adult life.
He’s been whipsawed by Taiwan’s courts; found guilty and nearly executed, found innocent, then found guilty again.
Su is a lanky, rail-thin man, with unruly hair flopping over his glasses and a slight chin. His emaciated appearance suggests a man who has been physically wasted by his two-decade ordeal.
Eight witnesses support the Hsichih Three's alibis, he said, proving they were not at the crime scene at the time of the murders.
But when they hauled him in on Aug. 15, 1991, police at the local Hsichih police station weren't in any mood to listen to alibis. Lacking any physical evidence, they were under intense pressure to extract verbal confessions, said Su.
After police tortured him, prosecutors arrived at the station to take Su’s statement, he said. At one hearing in April, the court listened to a scratchy 19-year-old recording of that encounter. Over and over again, Su's weak, scared voice pleaded, sobbed, saying, "I didn't do anything, I didn’t do it. You must believe me.”
Finally he did sign a statement, though. "They said if I didn't sign it, I couldn't leave the station."
Su and a member of the defense team said the Hsichih police station chief and deputy station chief on duty in August 1991 have since been promoted to high-ranking jobs; they don’t know the whereabouts of the lower-ranking cop who carried out most of the alleged torture.
To this day, none of the cops involved have been punished. Prosecutors refused to charge them when Su tried to bring a lawsuit, despite Su's insistence that there was photographic evidence of his wounds from an exam before he left the police station in August 1991.
All of the cops involved in the case deny torture.
Waiting to die
Su spent the next nine years in detention. First he was alone in a 72-square-foot room, wearing five-pound shackles around his ankles for 24 hours a day. Inmates got 20 minutes a day outside.
"Most of the inmates developed mental illnesses," said Su. "I kept reading — otherwise I would have gone crazy."
After his first year, he got a roommate. Several inmates had committed suicide at his detention center, so authorities decided not to leave them isolated.
His final sentence — the death penalty — came down on Feb. 9, 1995.
From that point until his first retrial in 2000, the psychological pressure was intense. "Six to 10 days after you receive the final sentencing, it's random, you can't predict when they will come for you," said Su. "I faced the fear and pressure that it would be me, next, every day."
Some death row inmates prepared empty "red envelopes" (hong bao), used to give gift money in Chinese culture, to pass out to other inmates once their final sentence came down. Su once got one from a condemned man with a terse message of encouragement: "You will win your case." But inmates who insisted they were innocent or didn't deserve to die wouldn't give out red envelopes.
Such was the case when Su's final sentence came down, leaving him a week to live.
"I didn't want to" give out red envelopes "because that would be a sign that I had given in to the situation, and could never escape," he said. His parents came to see him. "They told me they had visited many temples and prayed to God, and they told me to keep the faith, there might still be a chance for me to get out," he said.
Su Chien-ho, 17, in his school uniform in March 1989, two years before the murders and his arrest.
(Courtesy of the Humanistic Education Foundation)
Typically, Taiwan death row inmates are taken from their cells without notice in mid-evening. ("It used to be in the morning, but nearby residents said it was too terrifying, so they changed the schedule," said Lin Hsin-yi, of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty.) Some cops burn incense to the god of the underworld at small altars near the execution sites, to notify him another soul is on the way.
The condemned are given a last meal and asked for their last words. Then they’re injected with a powerful anesthetic, so strong it sometimes kills them, according to Lin. They're made to lie face-down on a blanket, then shot in the back, through the heart. If they've agreed to donate an organ, they're shot in the head.
Superstitious cops treat the spent execution bullets as amulets, believing they can repel demons, according to Taiwan media reports.
While waiting, Su wrote goodbye letters to his family, to his supporters, to his attorney.
"I believe there is a spirit, a God above this world, but I don't believe in any particular religion," said Su. "But I thought, if I get out I will devote most of my time to human rights causes. This was sort of my negotiation with God."
On Feb. 20, Taiwan’s top prosecutor, under pressure from rights groups, filed a rare, 11th-hour appeal to halt the execution. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal. Two more appeals were filed; both failed. By mid-August, Su’s options were exhausted. Only the justice minister’s signature stood between him and the execution chamber.
That minister — now Taiwan’s president — refused to sign the orders. So did his successors. And so Su got an indefinite reprieve.
For all of that, Su has a surprisingly unemotional take on capital punishment. "Any innocent person could find themselves in my position one day," said Su calmly. “They could be declared a criminal, like me.”
"So I support the abolition of the death penalty because it's a very problematic system. That's pretty much it."
Lin, of the anti-death-penalty alliance, said public opinion polls paint a confusing picture. Although a majority backs capital punishment, 80 percent of Taiwanese also don't trust their judicial system, and think it must make mistakes.
To explain that apparent contradiction, she said many Taiwanese believe it's worth killing one innocent person if it will help save many others' lives. Most people never believe they'll be the one falsely accused. "They think, I won't be one of the people to pay this price," said Lin.
If they have money, they're probably right, she said. "Rich people, or those with social status, they don't worry, because if they get in this situation, they can afford a good lawyer."
She noted that the Innocence Project and others have documented wrongful convictions in the United States. (Since 1973, 138 people have been released from death row in the United States because of evidence they were innocent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.) "But in Taiwan, we don't have this kind of information. Our legal system doesn't recognize that we even have these kinds of cases."
Lin said support for the death penalty had also been high in countries like France, Germany and Canada. But after the death penalty was abolished, support rates plunged.
What's more, 53 percent of Taiwanese are willing to accept a life sentence without the possibility of parole as a substitute for the death penalty, she said.
“The death penalty is often imposed after a grossly unfair trial,” wrote Amnesty International. “But even when trials respect international standards of fairness, the risk of executing the innocent can never be fully eliminated — the death penalty will inevitably claim innocent victims.”
In short, says Amnesty and other rights groups, the death penalty too often compounds the suffering of the original crime with the horror of executing an innocent man. That’s not justice, they say. It’s human sacrifice.
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 V: matter of "face"