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Double jeopardy: a look at the death penalty in Asia

Part I: A murder trial in Taiwan puts the spotlight on Asia's death penalty debate.

(Photo by Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images; Illustration by GlobalPost)

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 — Japan hangs them. China puts a bullet in their head. Taiwan makes them lie face down on a blanket, then shoots them in the back or skull.

Asia has had few qualms about capital punishment. It put more people to death in 2009 than the rest of the world combined, according to Amnesty International, with “the vast majority” of those executions in China.

But now, movements are afoot to abolish the death penalty. Taiwan and South Korea put unofficial moratoriums on executions, at least until Taiwan put to death four convicts in June last year after an outcry from crime victims’ relatives. Japan has also reduced executions.

Majorities in Asian countries support the death penalty, as is the case in the United States. But several high-profile cases have given people pause. In Japan last year, DNA evidence proved the innocence of a man who had been jailed for 17 years for murder. There are doubts, too, on the guilt of the country’s longest-serving death row inmate.

In Taiwan, the case of the "Hsichih Three" is cited by rights groups as a disturbing example of how police and the courts can get it wrong.

Once hours away from the execution chamber, the three men were found innocent last November in the grisly double murder of a couple in 1991. The only evidence against them were confessions they later recanted, saying they were obtained through torture.

"The case of the Hsichih Trio has raised public awareness of the weaknesses of the criminal justice system and begun to raise the death penalty as a question for public debate," said a report by the International Federation for Human Rights.

From April to November last year, GlobalPost followed the re-trial of the Hsichih Three, attending hearings and interviewing the key figures in the case. Their story is one of high drama. It highlights how the global debate over whether the state should have the power to take a life is playing out in Asia.

And it shows why Taiwan, for all its problems, is considered to be in the vanguard of human rights in Asia — and an example to its giant neighbor across the Taiwan Strait. While Taiwan is moving fitfully toward scrapping the death penalty, China executes thousands per year behind a shroud of secrecy.

An abominable crime

What happened in that room was evil.

In the dead of night on March 24, 1991, Wu Ming-han and Yeh Ying-lan were in bed, in their small apartment in a working-class Taipei suburb. In another room, their 7- and 8-year-old children slept.

At around 4 in the morning, one or more intruders crept into the couple's tiny bedroom. The couple awoke. A violent struggle erupted.

A crime scene reconstruction catalogued the results in emotionless detail, like a spreadsheet of horror. Wu was hacked 42 times; Yeh 37. Her wounds included 12 cuts on the face, 18 cuts on the left occipital, wounds to the left chest, right scapula, right hand, wrists and both arms. His left pinkie was broken and his wedding ring cut off.

Grainy police photos of the crime scene show two bodies sprawled on the floor like tossed-away rag dolls, each a bundle of mauled clothing and gore. Blood runs red down dressers, bedspreads and walls.

The Hsichih Three in fall 1995, after they'd been put on death row. From the left: Liu Bin-lang, Su Chien-ho and Chuang Lin-hsun, all age 23. (Courtesy of Tsai Tsung-lung)

Police arrested the couple's 22-year-old neighbor Wang Wen-hsiao, a marine conscript on home leave with a drug habit, divorced parents and gambling debts of at least $1,500. He confessed to the crime, describing a burglary gone horribly wrong. Military courts tried and executed him.

Under intense public pressure, local police also rounded up Wang's brother and three local teens he identified, on the belief that one person couldn't have committed such a brutal double murder alone. All four confessed to involvement in the crime, and Wang identified them as accomplices. They all later recanted, saying they had been tortured by police.

Only Wang’s fingerprints were found at the crime scene, along with two sets of bloody footprints (one of those believed to be a cop's), and one murder weapon — a meat cleaver. To this day, not a single piece of physical evidence ties the three to the scene of the crime.

Wang’s brother served a light jail sentence for testifying against the others, and was released. The Hsichih Three were found guilty and sent to death row. Their lives were spared when the minister of justice — now Taiwan's president — refused to sign their execution orders, citing irregularities in the case.

In 2003, a court overturned the convictions and freed them. Prosecutors appealed, and the three were found guilty again in 2007. Yet another retrial was ordered. And that's where things stood in April 2010.

Read more from Double jeopardy:

Part II: victims' families seek justice

Part III: trend toward abolition

Part IV: presumed guilty

Part V: matter of "face"

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/china/110114/taiwan-death-penalty-asia-hsichih-three-part-one