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 — The prosecutors in black-and-purple robes yawned, fidgeted, even dozed through many of the High Court hearings.
But throughout the trial, a 60-year-old man with thinning hair, wearing red-framed glasses and a plain jacket, listened intently from the row behind them. It was Wu Tang-jie, older brother of the male victim.
In an interview at his lawyer's office in Taipei in June, Wu said he had attended every hearing he could in the case's 19-year course. A counselor at a Taipei prison, he used his vacation days to represent the family in court.
He insisted that all the evidence pointed “obviously” to the guilt of the Hsichih Three.
How could one person with one weapon have inflicted so much gore? How could the victims’ 7- and 8-year-old children have slept through the horror, unless two or more assailants covered the victims' mouths to stop their screams?
In the middle of the interview, Wu pulled from a folder two large, double-sided laminated photos and placed them on the table. Garish red jumped out first. Then a closer look: a mutilated head and blood-matted hair, in gruesome close-up. It was Wu's brother and his brother’s wife, both 37 at the time of death, in blown-up police photos from the crime scene.
"If people who oppose the death penalty could see these pictures, I think they would change their minds," he said softly. "People who want to abolish the death penalty don't have family who were killed like this, so they don't have sympathy."
"The victims’ feelings, before they die — nobody can know that," he said, peering over the photos. "No one can write it down."
Wu said he thought the death penalty could deter serious crimes. "You will consider that you could be put to death before you commit a crime," he said. "If there was no death penalty, people would do whatever they want."
He said there should be a law to better take care of victims’ families, saying the two children of the murdered couple had “no help.”
He was clearly bitter at how the Hsichih Three had become a cause celebre for human rights and anti-death-penalty groups, while his family has suffered with little support. “We think we are a minority — nobody cares about us,” he said.
"Everybody speaks for people who are still alive," he said. "But what about the rights of the dead? My brother and his wife can't return from the dead. The law should give them justice."
Wave of sympathy
Last March a candlelight vigil was held to show solidarity with relatives of victims of heinous crimes, like Wu. It was timed as a rebuke to the justice minister, who had vowed not to execute anyone on her watch (the minister later resigned amid the backlash.) One of the vigil’s organizers was 35-year-old Chu Hsueh-heng.
Chu became interested in the death penalty while working on a government-commissioned research project that involved online polling on social issues. He started contacting victims' families, digging into archives, and researching the issue.
He said the anti-death-penalty movement had good intentions, and was "brave" in its initial opposition to political executions in the last days of martial law (1949-1987). Civil society efforts eventually bore fruit: Taiwan paid out some $650 million in compensation for more than 7,000 wrongful verdicts during the martial law era, including nearly 900 executions, according to Taiwan’s Humanistic Education Foundation.
But activists had gone too far, said Chu. "In the past three to five years, almost all the people they are defending are not innocent." He said activists and the government should be doing more to give legal help and a support system to victims' families.
Wang Wen-hsiao's finger-printed statement from Aug. 20, 1991, identifying the Hsichih Three and his brother Wang Wen-chong (pictured in police custody) as accomplices to murder. (Courtesy the Humanistic Education Foundation)
Worse, he accused the government of keeping victims' families in the dark, by starting a de facto moratorium on the death penalty without public debate on the issue. Chu called that policy "immoral."
"The government was doing something behind our backs," said Chu. "They were using a loophole as a way to delay the process, and didn't tell the public."
Victims' families "thought we would provide support," said Chu. "But our government didn't do the job well, so they feel cheated."
"Most of the victims' families support the death penalty," he said. "Maybe it's not right by high moral standards. But it’s like closure for them.” Long, drawn-out cases with no result, like the Hsichih Three case, were “like a torture” for victims’ relatives said Chu, and they “want to stop the torture.”
"'Where is the justice society promised me?' they say. 'When I get it, I'll be able to sleep at night, and I can start to forget. Then I can start to forgive.'"
Read the rest of Double jeopardy:
Part I: a look at the death penalty in Asia
Part III: trend toward abolition
Part IV: presumed guilty
Part V: matter of "face"