What you need to know
Even if Taiwan grants exonerated death row inmate Cheng Hsing-tse the compensation he is asking for, it will never make up for the years he lost behind prison walls.
July 19, 2018, was an emotional day for Cheng Hsing-tse (鄭性澤) and his family. It was Cheng’s first time back to the Taichung High Court since the judges returned a not guilty verdict for his retrial on October 26, 2017. Cheng was due back in court for his compensation hearing, during which he asked for NT$21.6 million (US$706,470) for being detained 4,321 days after being wrongfully convicted of murder.
In 2002, Cheng was accused of killing police officer Su Hsien-pi (蘇憲丕) in a Taichung karaoke bar shootout. In 2006, Cheng was found guilty of murder and possession of a firearm and was sentenced to death. He remained on death row for 11 years.
“I thought the most I would be charged with was gun possession,” Cheng told The News Lens after his 2017 exoneration. “After the death sentence judgment, I was hopelessly disappointed and surprised.”
At last year’s retrial hearing, the court heard new evidence that Cheng was tortured by police after being detained and gave his confession under duress. The court found that key evidence was withheld from the initial autopsy report, and could not rule out ballistics reports indicating that the gangster Luo Wu-hsiung (羅武雄) – who was killed by police after starting the shooting by firing a pistol at the ceiling – had killed the officer.
In November 2017, the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office declined to appeal the High Court's decision, exonerating Cheng after a 15-year wait for freedom. While the decision was celebrated at the time, the wait anxiously began to see how the courts would decide to compensate Cheng for his years lost to wrongful detention.
At the compensation hearing, the Taichung High Court first heard emotional testimony from Cheng’s mother.
She slowly walked toward the witness stand, assisted by members of Taiwan Innocence Project (台灣冤獄平反協會), an organization of law experts which provides representation to the wrongfully convicted. (Disclosure: I am an intern for Taiwan Innocence Project.)
The judge first asked in Taiwanese: “How did you first learn about your son getting arrested?”
“A phone call came, and someone drove me to the hospital. The police wouldn’t let me see my son at the hospital,” she said. “Later on, when I went to visit him in jail, they wouldn’t let me see him either. They finally let me see him when I went to visit for the second time.”
“Did he tell you he was tortured?” asked the judge.
“His eyes were all swollen up, and he had bruises all over his face,” she replied. “It’s not like I am blind. How could I not tell?”
The judge asked what life was like after Cheng was put in prison. Cheng’s mother described it: “I worried about him every day. I couldn’t sleep at night, especially when the idea that he might be executed any day came to me… Money was difficult to come by. I had to tell my younger son to stop going to school.”
The powerful, heartfelt testimony of Cheng's mother shook the courtroom. Her message was universal and unwavering: Her son was wronged and failed by the system. No parent would want to see her son tortured by the police and be sentenced to death for a crime committed by someone else. Cheng’s mother was just like any other parent. Not once did she give up hope.
Cheng himself was next up to the stand, where he described life on death row to the judge. He spoke of how the emotional burden carried by a death row inmate – not to mention an innocent one – is overwhelming.
The judge asked Cheng about his family and economic situation before and after getting imprisoned, aiming to capture the difference between Cheng’s freedom before and after his incarceration. However, his questions fell short of addressing the emotional turmoil Cheng and his family went through – an unbearable experience for Cheng and his family, one which cannot be soothed by any compensatory payment.
When the judge asked Cheng if there was anything he would like to add, he stood up to address the court. He held a piece of paper, full of written notes – but he then laid the paper down, as there was no need to look at it. The words came naturally.
“In my years living on death row, what have I missed? What have I lost?” There was no way for Cheng to know, but this much was certain: Now nearing his 50s, he lost his youth and life's endless possibilities, rendered inaccessible behind bars.
Cheng continued: “It was great pain living on death row. I didn’t know if the guards were taking me away every time they came around… When my family came to visit me in prison, I couldn’t express my torment in front of them. I didn’t want them to worry about me more so than they already had.”
“I treated every visit as the last,” Cheng said, “because you never know, the execution order could come down anytime.”
While wrongfully imprisoned, many of Cheng’s family members died. Cheng, of course, couldn’t attend any of their funerals. His girlfriend left him, and he grew distant from his family. “I couldn’t talk to my own little brother’s wife,” he explained. “There was no connection. I was not at their wedding. I was not present in their lives for years.”
“All those years ago, the judges gave me the harshest sentence possible: the death penalty,” Cheng told the judge. “That is why I should receive the highest compensation for my pains.”
Today's compensation laws in Taiwan rely on primitive calculations of the number of days exonerees have spent in the criminal justice system. They provide NT$3,000 (US$98) to NT$5,000 (US$163) of compensation for each day spent wrongfully detained.
These regulations are irresponsible in several ways. Not only does this compensation scheme reduce the harm inflicted upon exonerees, which is often psychological, to mere numbers; it also completely overlooks the pressing concern of exonerees’ assimilation back into society.
Current compensation laws suggest that mistakenly imprisoning people can be righted merely with money. While it is true that monetary compensation may be the most direct and tangible form of remedy, this wrongly draws parallels between a person’s life and monetary worth.
If monetary compensation is the only form of compensation, this is quite simply careless and thoughtless.
Furthermore, the dearth of provisions assisting exonerees in reclaiming their previous lives places an enormous burden upon society at large. Exonerees often find themselves unable to reenter the workforce, finding their previously acquired skills or trade outdated or in lack of demand. This is especially so for those who spent an extended period wrongfully incarcerated.
This problem is only compounded by how many of the wrongfully convicted belong to the working class. Indifference in the reintegration of exonerees into society creates a potentially dangerous situation that may be costly to remedy in the future.
The lives of Cheng and his fellow exonerees have been completely altered by the wrongful convictions. In the modern system, there is no clear path back.
After the wrongfully convicted watch years, or even decades, wash away from inside a prison they never should have entered, it is difficult to return to freedom and navigate life outside prison.
Government compensation should be just one of several lifelines cast to wrongfully incarcerated people to help them restart their lives. In addition to monetary compensation, current compensation laws must be reformed to help exonerees assimilate back into society. Robust rehabilitative programs and societal support must be provided. The government should not fail these exonerees twice.
Read Next: Cheng Hsing-tse: Finally Free from Death Row's Shadow
Editor: Nick Aspinwall