What you need to know
'I was afraid to sleep, in case I woke up back in jail.' A man wrongly convicted of kidnap and murder, speaks about his two decades on death row in Taiwan.
There was a time when Hsu Tzu-chiang (徐自強) woke up, quietly put on his best suit, and then sat by himself for hours, waiting to be executed.
After the “normal” period when someone was likely taken to be killed passed, he would return to his cell, slowly remove the clothing, carefully fold it, and put it back under his bed, ready for the next day.
“How long exactly? I can’t remember, but this lasted for a couple of months,” Hsu, 48, told The News Lens International in Taipei.
It was during the early years of a 16-year stretch on death row, when he was “numb,” when he thought “sooner or later” he would be executed. And in Taiwan, the condemned are allowed to wear their best clothing on their execution day.
Hsu, along with two others, was sentenced to death for the September 1995 kidnap and murder of businessman Huang Chun-shu (黃春樹). No material evidence was found connecting Hsu to the murder, but the confession of a codefendant – thought by some to be extracted during torture by the police – implicated Hsu. Fearing torture, Hsu went into hiding for months before he turned himself in, in June 1996.
Hsu, who has always maintained his innocence, is very lucky his execution was never carried out; more than 150 people were executed in Taiwan during the time he was in prison. While his case was eventually championed by lawyers and activists, and become synonymous with human rights and legal reform in Taiwan, for the first five years of his sentence he was just another man on death row.
Hsu's case, as the Judicial Reform Foundation puts it, “repeatedly bounced back and forth” between the High Court and Supreme Court. In his first six trials, he was found guilty and given the death sentence.
Hsu says he reached his “lowest point” after the guilty verdict was first handed down.
“One part of me was saying ‘come and kill me now,’ another was saying, ‘maybe take me tomorrow, maybe I can see my family again,’” he says.
Throughout the rest of his time behind bars, seeing his family would continue to take him back to that nadir, the most painful part of his experience.
“You go to the visiting room with a very happy feeling, but you leave feeling like that might be the last time you will see your family.”
Aside from the very real danger of execution, Hsu’s years in the detention center – where Taiwan’s death row prisoners are held – appear to be characterized by waiting, eating, smoking and waiting. He tried to keep fit, running on the spot in his cell. If it was not raining, prisoners were allowed outside for around 30 minutes a day – though he notes at one detention center with no outdoor area he was indoors for eight months straight.
For the most part, he just waited; waited to eat and waited for his name to be called – a headcount is taken every time a guards take a break or changes shift. Some guards would give inmates cigarettes to smoke in their cell, as long as they did not tell anyone about it.
“Who was I going to tell?”
Some prisoners had mini portable televisions, but the cost of batteries prohibited most from watching often.
“Everything costs money. Toilet paper too; the government did not provide that,” he says.
Hsu says during the first few years he was locked up, the guards could beat prisoners with an apparent impunity – when asked what they did to prisoners he replies, “The question is, what wouldn’t they do?”
However, because most of the men in the detention center were “without tomorrow,” disputes between prisoners or with the guards were rare, he says.
“Those people don’t really have hope anymore; they don’t start fights, they don’t argue as often as in a normal prison,” he says.
Medical problems, however, were common and very slow to be resolved. Hsu recalls toothaches, in particular, as the worst physical torment he suffered. Prisoners with a health complaint had to first fill out a form and then await treatment. If their pain was obvious, guards dished out a few painkillers, but seeing a health professional could be weeks away – Hsu knows of an instance when someone waited two months. Unsurprisingly, prisoners took matters into their own hands. Hsu knocked out two of his own teeth during his incarceration.
More than 10 years of cold showers came to an end after Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) – charged with corruption upon leaving office – joined the men in detention in late 2008.
No light at the end of the tunnel
As the years crawled by – waiting, eating, smoking and waiting – Hsu’s case continued to ping-pong in the courts, with appeal after appeal.
A 2001 report from Taiwan’s ombudsman agency – the Control Yuan – found flaws in the confessions of his codefendants and in the handling of the case, including the fact authorities had ignored arguments that Hsu was not at the scene of the murder.
In a 2004 interpretation, the country’s constitutional court – also known as the Council of Grand Justices – ruled the use the confessions of codefendants alone was not strong enough evidence to incriminate a defendant. Despite what could be seen as progress – that ruling has had a significant impact on Taiwan’s legal system – Hsu was not confident of ever being freed.
“I was always very confident in my own case, but I was always very disappointed with the judges. I didn’t have any confidence in the judges,” he says.
He was right to be wary. The Supreme Court reopened the case in 2005 and sent it back to the High Court for a sixth retrial. The trial took four years and, again, resulted in the death penalty.
In the early years, Hsu says being inside and innocent, was “very difficult, very hard, very painful.”
“There is no light on the other side of the tunnel. You cannot see hope,” he says. “[In 1996] I turned myself in to explain the case, because I believed in the courts. Then I went there and realized the reality of the court was not how I imagined.”
Watching his family continue to help pay for the costly legal bills was also particularly hard.
“I didn’t want my family members to pay for something that did not have any hope of succeeding,” he says. “At that time, I just wanted to end the pain.”
Despite the positive ombudsman’s findings and the constitutional ruling, Hsu says he did not feel much in the way of hope. He had for a long time been moving “one day at a time.”
“I didn’t really look forward to the result, I had already given up,” he says. “When I went to court the judges would say, ‘You have to prove you didn’t do it.’ But I can’t prove something that I didn’t do.”
In late 2011, Hsu had been again found guilty of blackmail and kidnapping, but not murder, and was instead sentenced to life in prison. While the High Court in May 2012 upheld that sentence, he was released according to a then-new Fair and Speedy Criminal Trials Act.
In May 2012, Hsu emerged from the detention center into a wet Taipei evening. Pale and dazed, he fronted media briefly before being whisked away by his supporters.
In the preceding months and days, even as it looked like a release from prison may be possible, Hsu, accustomed to disappointment, kept calm and his expectations low.
“I didn’t look forward, I didn’t look back,” he says. “I was not too optimistic, nor too upset about it.”
Looking back now, Hsu’s memory of his first few hours of freedom is “blurry.”
“I didn’t feel really happy,” he says. “I didn’t believe I was walking outside the prison. I remember that there were a lot of people. Other than that, I don’t really remember.”
Today, Hsu’s friends say he looks like a different person. His face is somewhat ageless for a lack of facial hair and a healthy tan. His hair is stylishly cut and he wears tortoise-shell rimmed glasses. On the day of the interview, Hsu is wearing white K-Swiss shoes, tight-fitting jeans and a casual green shirt with white trim.
Appearances aside, assimilation into society has not been easy. Hsu says it took him at least one year before he could really believe he was no longer in prison.
“When I was inside, I often dreamed of being out, free. Then I would wake up and still be in prison. When I finally got out, I was reluctant to go to sleep at night, because I was afraid to dream and wake up back inside the prison,” he says.
Of course, the nightmare did continue. Hsu was out and working at the Judicial Reform Foundation, but prosecutors continued to pursue his case. In 2015, the High Court finally found Hsu not guilty. But that decision was appealed. It was not until Oct. 13 this year, when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, and the case against him was finally closed after the ninth retrial.
Hsu has now been out of jail for four years, but he continued to have “some feeling of not being free.”
He says it is difficult to describe exactly how he feels now, or whether anything has changed since that final decision.
“It doesn’t really feel that real, yet. It seems like it is over, but I don’t know,” he says. “Everything is about the same. But something inside my heart, something has disappeared. A feeling of bondage or confinement has gone.”
Even now, however, he is still adjusting to freedom. He is reluctant to leave his house alone and does not always feel secure without friends around. It takes him some time to answer questions; he speaks quietly, chooses words cautiously and takes long pauses. There remains a sense of bemusement; could he be the person answering questions about the life of one of Taiwan’s most famous death row inmates?
He has low expectations about the chances of compensation from the state.
“How are they going to compensate? A lot of things, you cannot really compensate with money.”
Hsu will continue to fight for other innocent people behind bars. In this endeavor, he is, perhaps, motivated by wanting to repay those that helped him fight, as much as in response to his own desperate frustration with the court system, and the judges in particular.
He wants to see major judicial reform. He says “the whole structure has problems," but he stresses, the key problem is “always about the people.”
He believes his case should have been easy to deal with, but the judges would not admit they were wrong.
“I don’t want anyone to have to walk the same path as me,” he says.
When he is with his family, Hsu says, he does not talk about what they have gone through in the past. They do not talk about prison.
“We only talk about the future. We look forward. We treasure the moment together.”
Special acknowledgment: Yi Pan (潘儀) and the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty for translation assistance.
Editor: Olivia Yang