ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
To China now, where the government is tightening control over the death penalty. The courts there have overturned a number of death sentences this year following widely publicized problems with trials. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story of four Chinese families who say their sons were sentenced to death several times and unjustly imprisoned for more than a decade.
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ANTHONY KUHN reporting:
The corn has been harvested, and its parched stalks carpet the rocky hillsides around Chengdu. During the last imperial dynasty, Chengdu was China's summer capital, where emperors came to ride, hunt and escape the heat of Beijing 100 miles to the southwest. In 1994, the stabbing deaths of two local cab drivers shocked residents here. Local law enforcement officials came under pressure to find and convict the killers.
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KUHN: Two months later police arrested four young men here in Drung-tao Yeng village(ph). Under interrogation, all four confessed to the murders. One of the four is Fui Rusun(ph). In her simple farmhouse, she recalls seeing her son's wounds.
Ms. FUI RUSUN: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: `My son, Hung Wu Chung(ph), took off his outer clothes in court,' she says. `He was wearing his briefs. There were two large pits with purple scars on his leg.'
Despite signs of torture on the defendants, a Chengdu court sentenced the men to death three times. Each time the men appealed their sentences to a provincial high court. Each time the high court overturned the verdict and ordered a retrial. The high court said the facts were unclear and requested clarification. Why did the lower court ignore evidence backing up the suspects' alibis? And what about the allegations of torture? But each time the lower court just passed another death sentence without answering the questions.
The fourth time, in 2003, the lower court relented a bit and sentenced the men to life in prison. This time the high court upheld the verdicts. Yung Yi Jung(ph), the father of one of the men, was dissatisfied with the outcome.
Mr. YUNG YI JUNG (Father): (Through Translator) I said, `Our demands are simple: Handle the case according to the law.' Everyone knows that if you owe money, you pay it back, and if you kill someone, you pay with your life. If my son killed anyone, then you execute whomever you have to. If he didn't kill anyone, then he should be judged innocent and released.
KUHN: China's laws have traditionally emphasized punishment over individual rights. Its harsher rulers have felt that it's better to wrongly execute innocent people than to risk letting a criminal go free. Chinese defendants have never been presumed innocent until proven guilty. If the evidence against a defendant is questionable, it may just mean a lighter sentence.
In desperation, parents of the four defendants have traveled to Beijing in search of a sympathetic official. But Yung Zhou-Sah(ph), one of the parents, says, with tears streaming down her face, that they've met with nothing but indifference and have spent all their money appealing the case.
Ms. YUNG ZHOU-SAH (Mother): (Through Translator) We don't have enough to eat or wear. We don't have the energy to work. We can't harvest our crops. Our outrage at this injustice is too strong for words.
KUHN: Officials in Chengdu were either unavailable or declined to comment on the case.
Despite everything, the families are still hopeful their sons will be released. One reason is that they believe they found the real killers. In 1996, a jailed convict told police that his band of robbers, including a man named Lao Fu-Chen(ph), had killed the taxi drivers. Police say they've investigated the claim and found it baseless. But legal scholar Shiu Jiung(ph), who is helping the four families, disagrees. Speaking at a cafe near Beijing University, he recounts how he tracked down and questioned Lao Fu-Chen's brother.
Mr. SHIU JIUNG (Legal Scholar): (Through Translator) I asked him very directly: `Do you think your brother murdered those two taxi drivers?' He said, `I think he did.' He was very certain.
KUHN: Shiu says the man also admitted to selling two pagers that his brother had given him, possibly the pagers that the killers took from the dead taxi drivers. Shiu is confident that the four defendants accused of the killings will eventually be released.
In recent months widely publicized miscarriages of justice have put pressure on China's government. Critics say part of the problem is that China's Supreme Court handed provincial courts the power to review death penalties in the 1980s. State media have reported that the Supreme Court now plans to take back that right. Human rights groups have welcomed the news. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.
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