Suspended death sentences exceed immediate executions for 1st time
The number of suspended death sentences handed down this year in China surpassed that of immediate executions for the first time, reflecting the policy of "applying the death penalty to only a small number of extremely serious offenders", the Chief Justice Xiao Yang said on Friday.
Xiao attributed the shift towards what he called a more prudent use of the death penalty to the supreme court's resumption of the right to review all death penalty decisions made by lower courts.
That right resumed on Jan. 1, 2007, ending the court's 24-year absence in approving many of China's execution verdicts.
"Generally, this significant reform has registered smooth progress in the transitional period," said Xiao, president of the Supreme People's Court (SPC), at a national work conference on judicial reform. He did not provide any statistics concerning death sentences.
He said the reform ensured that "all defendants were equal before the law" and unified the "judicial scale" in applying death sentences.
"It also strengthens the protection of human rights in the judicial field," Xiao said, adding "those who could be absolved will not be given any capital punishment and those who need not be executed immediately will not get immediate executions."
"The court should ensure that the death penalty would only be imposed on those who have committed extremely serious crimes" with extreme social impact, he said.
Doing so had made immediate execution cases drop steadily, he said.
In China, death sentences fall into two categories: immediate execution or a two-year reprieve.
All capital cases where the death sentence does not require immediate execution should include a two-year reprieve, according to an SPC document released earlier this year.
"Death sentences with a reprieve can ... punish the guilty but also reduce the number of death penalties," it says.
The SPC reviewed all capital cases until 1983. The provincial courts were subsequently given final authority for cases involving crimes that were considered to seriously endanger public security and social order.
The practice of provincial courts handling both death sentence appeals and conducting final reviews, however, drew sharp criticism in the wake of some highly-publicized miscarriages of justice.
Since the SPC regained the right of review, it has overturned a large proportion of death sentences.
In the review of death sentences, some cases need lower-level courts, or even prosecutors and police, to provide supplemental material and evidence. Some cases require police to investigate suspects who are identified by the accused.
Early this month, Jiang Xingchang, vice president of the SPC said: "As people's courts across China have been strictly controlling and cautiously applying the death penalty over the past dozen years, the number of death penalty cases has kept declining and reached its lowest point last year."
Figures from the Beijing No 1 and No 2 intermediate people's courts indicate that, in the first five months of 2007, the number of death sentences dropped 10 percent from last year.
More judges and judicial staff have been added to the SPC team that exercises death penalty review rights. The supreme court has recruited experienced lawyers and law school teachers as senior judges.
Open court sessions have become mandatory since July 2006, when a second hearing of a death sentence is defended by a people's procuratorate.
Previously, most appeals -- even involving the death penalty --were not heard in open court because of a lack of qualified personnel, and errors in handling death sentences were not uncommon in China.
More than 1,900 more judicial staff were planned to be hired in June for open court trials for second hearings of death sentences, which are intended to be a second line of defense to prevent injustices and ensure that judgments stand the test of time.