Letter from Beijing — Part Six

 

[Editor’s Note: Chapters One through Five of this book, Back From the Dead: A Landmark Ruling of Wrongful Conviction in China, can be found by clicking Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four and Chapter Five. Generously shared in these pages by the author, He Jiahong, it is the true story of China’s parallel to the O.J. Simpson murder case, which occurred around the same time. Here is Chapter Six.]

 

Back from the Dead

On 28 March 2005, Zhang Aiqing reappeared in Hechang. When she
walked through the front door of her mother’s house, her family was
left speechless. Looking around, she said blithely: ‘It’s Aiqing! I’m
back!’ Her mother threw herself into Aiqing’s arms and together,
they broke down in a tearful reunion. The rest of the family soon
joined in.

Once they had settled down, Aiqing’s eldest brother said: ‘We were
sure you’d died long ago.’

Aiqing replied: ‘I was close to it, but I’m strong, and I managed to get
back on my feet. Did you not get my letters? I’ve been writing to you
for two years!’

Her brother said they had received the letters, but no one
believed them to be written by her. The letters had been signed with
her name but the handwriting did not look like hers and they
seemed out of character. Aiqing had never explained where she was
or what she was doing and only urged the family to take care of her
daughter. They had simply come to regard the letters as unpleasant
pranks. When Mrs Zhang asked her how she had spent all the
missing years, Aiqing turned her head and glanced over her shoulder
at the stranger who appeared in the doorway.

Aiqing’s second brother said: ‘We were all scared when your letters
came. We were afraid that someone was going to come for revenge.
You know, like someone just out of prison, an acquaintance of She
Xianglin’s who was sending us intimidating letters about your
daughter. . .’

Aiqing suddenly asked: ‘How is my daughter? And why is She
Xianglin in prison?’

At this, the family looked at each other in silence, then Aiqing’s
eldest brother said: ‘It seems that She Xianglin has been treated
unjustly.’ When she heard the story behind his imprisonment,
Aiqing’s jaw became set and tears started to roll down her face. Her
brother said: ‘We need to go and report this right away.’

After the matter was reported to the local police station, it was
immediately sent to the county police, where the news was treated
very seriously. Their first priority was to conclusively identify the
woman claiming to be Zhang Aiqing using scientific means. The next
day, the DNA results confirmed her identity as the ‘deceased’ Zhang
Aiqing. The news travelled from the county police to the county
Politics and Law Committee, and from there to the Jingmen City
Politics and Law Committee. That night, the committee held a
meeting, at which it was unanimously agreed that the matter had to
be dealt with immediately.

In the meantime, news of Aiqing’s reappearance had spread quickly
through her village. On 30 March, at an emergency sitting, the
Jingmen City Intermediate People’s Court repealed the ruling of
first-instance and the reconsideration ruling that had found She
Xianglin guilty of the murder of Zhang Aiqing. The court requested
that the Jingshan County Basic People’s Court re-investigate the
case, and at the same time to release She Xianglin on bail.

Two days later, on 1 April, with his complexion pale and his hair thin,
She Xianglin walked out of Hubei Shayang Prison. Many journalists
were waiting by the prison gate, ready to capture this rare moment
in Chinese legal history. When the reporters questioned him, She
Xianglin described a confusing mix of feelings. He was both angry
and grateful for Zhang Aiqing’s ‘resurrection’ but his immediate
concern was for his daughter who was hurrying home in the wake of
her father’s release on bail.

The story of a miscarriage of justice where a supposedly murdered
woman had come back from the dead attracted the attention of
journalists across the country, who began to closely examine the
original investigation and those involved. Lu Cheng, the deputy
leader of the investigation team that had been assigned the case, had
since been promoted to the position of deputy police chief in
Jingshan County. In interviews with the media, he said that he felt a
deep sense of remorse. He regretted that no one had conducted a
DNA test at the time, which would have made the case much clearer.
Although Jingshan County had no such equipment at the time, the
126 Police Research Institute (now known as the Police Forensic
Science Centre) did. The misidentification of the body was the
principle reason the case had turned into such a miscarriage of
justice. At the time, Zhang Aiqing’s family and relatives all seemed to
believe that the dead body was hers. Lu Cheng believed that it
demonstrated the need to avoid placing too much emphasis on the
testimony of witnesses. But even when questioned by reporters, he
denied that the investigators in this case had ever used torture to
extract She Xianglin’s confession.

Reporters flocked to interview Zhang Aiqing to find out the reasons
behind her disappearance. The attention took its toll and her mental
state became unstable once again. The local media put her family in
contact with a psychiatric hospital which offered her free treatment.
In the hospital when she spoke to reporters, she said she’d only
come back to see how her family was doing, and that she had only
expected to stay a couple of days. She had no idea that things would
become so complicated. She especially wanted to see She Xianglin
and speak to him face-to-face, but whether Xianglin was willing to
meet was another matter. When she heard that he was out on bail
and that he was very weak and refused to eat, she asked a reporter
to send him a bunch of fresh flowers. She wanted to call him, but
didn’t want to affect his mental state. After a while, and with some
encouragement, she finally gave She Xianglin a call. She told him
that even though this ordeal had brought him close to death, he had
to keep up his spirits and strengthen his resolve. ‘Don’t you
remember the time when you had a fever of 40 degrees but you still
went to work? That was the first time you nearly died, so I know you
can make it. You can overcome anything.’ Xianglin only listened, and
didn’t respond. Finally, with tears in her eyes, Aiqing said softly into
the phone, ‘I’m fine.’

On 13 April 2005, the Jingshan County Basic People’s Court heard
the case. In front of She Xianglin and a mass of journalists, the
presiding judge solemnly pronounced She Xianglin innocent.

When he left the court with his family and throngs of reporters in
tow, She Xianglin went first to the cemetery to offer his respects to
his mother. He kept saying that if it hadn’t been for his wrongful
conviction, his mother would not have had to shoulder such a heavy
burden and would not have died so early as a result.

When he first saw his eighteen-year-old daughter, he felt there were
hundreds of things he wanted to say, but didn’t know where to
begin. When Xianglin had last seen her, she had been six. Growing
up she had no mother or father, and Mrs She, whom she had loved
dearly, had died shortly after being released by the police. She had
no friends in the tiny mountain village where she had lived and, after
struggling through the first year of junior high school, she dropped
out. Soon after, she had gone with her uncle, Xianglin’s younger
brother, and his family to work — while still a child — in an electronics
factory in Dongguan. Now that father and daughter were together,
they silently embraced each other.

After She Xianglin’s case was overturned, local officials rushed to
consult with him and his family to arrange compensation and
government aid. The Chinese National Compensation Law had taken
effect on 1 January 1995, and covered the compensation for
erroneously judged criminal cases including compensatory damages,
medical expenses, dependants’ living expenses and remuneration
for lost wages. From 11 April 1994, when he was detained under the
practice of ‘sheltered for investigation’, to 1 April 2005, when he was
released on bail, She Xianglin had been imprisoned for 3995 days.
The National Compensation Law states that ‘the compensation for a
citizen who has had his or her personal freedom infringed upon
should be calculated on the basis of the national average daily pay
for the previous year.’ Consequently, having lost his personal
freedom for eleven years, She Xianglin was entitled to 220,000 yuan
(US $26,400). At the time, however, the National Compensation Law
did not provide for damages for mental suffering. [Note 23]

In September 2005, She Xianglin signed a compensation agreement
with the Jingmen City Intermediate People’s Court. The court
agreed to pay 256900 yuan (US $30,828) in damages to She Xianglin
for the violation of his personal rights (this included a fee of 1100
yuan for the burial of the unknown victim). In October, the She
family reached a similar agreement with the Jingshan police. The
police agreed to pay 226,000 yuan (US $27,120) in compensation to
Xianglin, 4000 yuan (US $480) to his brother for his imprisonment
and 220,000 yuan (US $26,400) to his family for the death of Mrs
She. The local Jingshan government also paid She Xianglin a 200,000
yuan (US $24,000) subsidy to help with his living costs. [Note 24]

The two villagers from Yaoling Village who had been imprisoned on
the basis of the ‘certificate of sincerity’ also reached a compensation
agreement with the Jingshan police: one received 22,000 yuan
(US $2640) and the other 3000 yuan (US $360).

Although the government had undertaken the responsibility to
provide compensation to the people affected by the erroneous
decision, there were people directly involved in the case that needed
to be held accountable for their lapses in judgement. In April 2005,
the Jingmen City Politics and Law Committee established a work
team to investigate the people responsible. Han Hua, who had been
the deputy chief of the Jingshan police and the head of the special
investigation team, had been transferred to the position of deputy
president of the Jingshan County Basic People’s Court. Lu Cheng,
who had led the Jingshan police’s criminal squad and who had been
the deputy chief of the investigation team, had been promoted to
Han Hua’s old position. He Liang, one of the other key members of
the investigation team, had been promoted to the head of the
criminal squad before he had died of liver cancer in 2001. Pan Jun,
the other key member of the investigation team, was now an
instructor in the county police patrol unit.

During the period that he was under investigation by the work team,
Pan Jun complained many times of his mistreatment. On 25 May
2005, he went to a public cemetery in Wuhan after cutting his wrists
with a metal can and wrote the words ‘I have been wronged’ on a
gravestone in his own blood and hanged himself from a nearby tree.
Although this incident was not reported in the media, it greatly
alarmed the people involved in the inquiry. The work team soon
came to a decision, that the actions of those involved in She
Xianglin’s case constituted extortion and dereliction of duty. While
two of the principal people involved had already died, Han Hua and
Lu Cheng would be dismissed from their current positions. And so,
the investigation into the mishandling of She Xianglin’s case was
closed.

NOTES

23 On 29 April 2010, the Standing Co1n1nittee of the National People’s Congress
approved an amendment of the National Compensation Law. The amended law
increased the compensation for mental suffering and took effect fro1n 1 December
2010. Article 35 of this law provides: ‘Under the circumstances laid out in Article 3
and Article 17, in the case of mental injury, the state shall, to the extent of the
infringement, eliminate the effects of the infringement for the injured party, resume
his or her reputation, make an apology and pay appropriate compensation money if
the infringement causes serious consequences.’

24 Quoted US dollar equivalents are based on an average historical exchange rate of
0.12 for 2005.

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