What you need to know
The lawyer of the man who killed four people on the Taipei subway in 2014 is bracing himself for more ‘random killings’ in Taiwan.
Everyone in Taiwan knows the name Cheng Chieh (鄭捷).
The 23-year-old was executed on May 10, two years after he killed four and injured 22 in a stabbing spree on the Taipei subway.
The murders, known locally as the “random MRT killings,” sent shockwaves through Taiwan.
“This was the first case of its kind in Taiwan, but it is not going to be the last of its kind,” says Leon Huang (黃致豪) the attorney who led Cheng’s defense.
Cheng, 21 at the time, was apprehended immediately after the stabbings on May 21, 2014. He reportedly told police that he carried out the attack so he could be given a death sentence, because he did not have the courage to take his own life. Cheng said he had been thinking about carrying out the crime for years.
Psychiatric testing later showed Cheng did not meet the clinical classification for insanity. The Supreme Court ruled he clearly knew what he was doing when he committed the murders. However, the apparent lack of a motive and unpredictable nature of the crime remain problematic for many in Taiwan, one of the safest countries in the world.
Huang, however, believes that the isolation and alienation, which he says Cheng so keenly suffered from, were key factors leading to the killing and that such feelings are widespread across Taiwan.
“There is always a motive, there is always intent,” Huang told The News Lens International at his Taipei office. “For this type of ‘random’ killing, I think the intent was obvious; attention seeking, crying out for help [and] self-destruction due to isolation.”
‘Clear path’ to annihilation
Huang says he spent many hours over almost two years talking with Cheng before he was executed. While a single, obvious motive never materialized, he believes a “very clear path” emerged, which goes a long way to explaining why a young man with an ordinary, middle-class Taiwanese upbringing became the country’s most notorious murderer.
In Cheng’s case, Huang believes he has “joined the dots.” Cheng had a tough time in his early schooling, from which he felt an ongoing sense of injustice. After high school, he had a sense of deepening isolation and became alienated from peers and family members. He developed the belief that he did not have control over his life, a condition known as “learned helplessness,” and eventually was consumed by a total withdrawal and feeling of complete transparency.
“When he looked at [other people’s] faces, he could not see his own reflection in their eyes,” Huang says. “When you stop feeling your own existence in other people’s eyes, but at the same time you think so much [about] yourself, you feel pain."
When Cheng's pain accumulated to the degree that he wanted to annihilate himself and his surroundings, what happened was "inevitable," Huang says.
Cheng told Huang that for years he felt his existence had ceased to be meaningful, but at the same time, he wanted to be remembered.
“What is the best [way] to do this? You commit a crime that nobody will forget for the rest of their lives, that marks an entire generation. That is exactly what he did.”
In the aftermath of the killings, media reports highlighted that Cheng liked to play violent computer games and had shown something of an unusual interest in violence. Many possible warnings signs were also identified – including the fiction that he wrote, online posts and comments in social media.
However, it appears for most people Cheng had simply faded into the background. Huang notes that by the time he reached his early 20s, Cheng had enjoyed no notable social experiences, had never held a job, had no sexual experience nor had a romantic relationship, and he had no emotional attachments beside his parents and younger brother.
“Along the course of our conversations, you start to realize that this guy was nothing but a very, very lonely soul,” he says.
Cheng’s prison correspondence with his parents suggests that his parents lacked the skills to “genuinely communicate” with their children, the lawyer says.
“When he was trying to tell them how he actually felt, the replies were usually like, ‘You don’t have talk about this in your letter, just stay nice, stay out of trouble, do your time in prison, don’t cause more shame to the family.’”
Cheng’s parents — who publicly apologized for their son’s actions and supported the death sentence when the ruling was announced — were “typical” of their generation in their interactions with their eldest son, Huang says.
“If these middle-class parents would spend more time chatting, not even talking about life issues, just chatting with their kids — talking about whatever; their love life, their sex life, their school life – I think that would probably have changed the situation,” he says. “But unfortunately none of that happened.”
Huang, a father himself, is worried by “the horrible fact” that the lack of such “genuine acts between parents and children” is still normal in Taiwanese society.
“I’m sorry to say, but [Cheng’s case] won’t be the last,” he says. “[Parents] do not know how to express their feelings, or their love. They do not know how to tell their children they actually love them.”
The untold story
The reclusive and troubled Cheng reportedly told police he had long planned to do “something big.” While the date and the people he eventually chose for the crime appear to have had no known significance, the location — between Taipei’s Longshan Temple and Jiangzicui metro stations — is the longest distance between any two stations. It was selected by Cheng so he could have the maximum impact. He later told Huang that if he'd had access to a gun, he would have used one, rather than the two knives he used in the attacks, to kill more people.
Gun ownership is illegal in Taiwan.
In taking the case, the defense attorney knew from the outset that the odds were long on anything other than a death sentence for his client. However, Huang believed that the judicial system in Taiwan was chronically flawed — he still does — and saw the high-profile case as an opportunity to shed light on systemic problems. He says he and his team were upfront with Cheng about the low chance of a successful defense and his intentions to use the case to expose the system’s shortcomings.
After his arrest, Cheng habitually fronted police or the courts with a mask of indifference and an indignant attitude and never showed remorse for his many victims. However, the lawyer believes he was capable of compassion — when Huang received death threats for his role in the case, Cheng told him to drop the case.
Cheng had quickly been dubbed the “Monster of the Metro” by local media — “monster” would later be used by judges to describe Cheng. And in a country where the death penalty continues to be supported by the majority of the population, his fate, it seems, was certain.
But as his lawyers got to know Cheng and better understand his story, the team, while aware that a death sentence may have always been unavoidable, still hoped to portray him “not as a monster, but rather as a victim of society.”
“If we could convince people to pay more attention to their family, and spend more time with each other, probably a potential disaster can be avoided,” Huang says. “That is the whole point.”
They never had the chance.
A dangerous precedent
There is strong evidence that Cheng did not get a fair trial, and that the government’s processing of his execution was a wild break from convention.
The case swiftly moved through the three levels of Taiwan’s court system. In total, five court sessions — each session often lasting less than one hour — were granted in the District Court, two in the High Court and a single, slightly longer, session in the Supreme Court. Huang estimates the total time spent in the courtroom defending Cheng was less than 20 hours. Many expert witnesses subpoenaed by the defense and other beneficial evidence for defendant were not allowed to presented, the lawyer says.
Looking back, it is the approach of the Supreme Court that angers Huang the most.
“One of the judges stated, ‘We know there are legal flaws, but since the crime of this defendant is such a horrendous one, those minor flaws become insignificant.’”
“That is just not right,” Huang says, adding that the ruling could set a dangerous precedent for future courts to likewise “ignore due process.”
The Supreme Court handed down its final decision on April 22, confirming the death sentence. Eighteen days later, with fresh appeals set to be lodged, Minister of Justice Luo Ying-shay (羅瑩雪) — days away from leaving office to make way for the new government — signed the execution order. Within about three hours Cheng was given a general anesthetic before being shot.
Huang believes the execution process reflected a “major injustice.”
From 2010 to 2015, Taiwan executed four to six people each year. When the final sentence was issued, Cheng became the latest of 43 people on death row in Taiwan. His defense team, thinking it had months — or more likely years — was planning to demand a retrial, on the basis of the lack of due process throughout the trial. Failing that, the team had intended to take the case to the Constitutional Court.
“When we were doing that the Ministry of Justice just took him and executed him,” Huang says.
In the evening of May 10, upon hearing from a journalist that Cheng was being taken to be executed, Huang made a final plea to Ministry of Justice officials, demanding it be stopped and told them he was filing a petition to President Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) for clemency.
“They said, ‘That would not make any difference. It doesn’t stop the execution.’ In five minutes, he was gone,” Huang says.
The 18-day period between the Supreme Court’s final decision and the execution is understood to be the fastest in the country’s history. Luo justified the decision to carry out Cheng’s execution ahead of other pending cases by saying the case had made people fear for their safety in public places. She also questioned whether the incoming minister — due to take office 10 days later — may have moved to abolish the death penalty.
The ministry’s handling of the execution was completely out of sync with what legal experts and civil society, including the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty, expected.
“There was no due process whatsoever,” Huang says.
Ultimately, Cheng’s sudden death meant the effort Huang and his team put into the case was in vain.
“In terms of getting the message out, we failed big time,” Huang laments. “We were hoping people would start thinking about the reasons why anyone would commit a crime like this.”
The ill treatment Cheng, "The Monster," received from the media, the judicial system and the government conspired against him so that his story, and potential lessons from his life, are not widely known.
“If he is indeed what we labeled him, a ‘monster,’ who made him a monster? What made him a monster? If that ‘who’ or ‘what’ is still there in our society, how do you know there is not going to be another ‘monster’ among us?”
After the execution, Huang wanted to take the case to the Constitutional Court, but Cheng’s parents did not want the lawyer to pursue the matter any further.
Huang is now representing Wang Ching-
First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole