There is evidence of serious flaws in the handling of mental health issues in the judgments delivered to at least 10 people sentenced to death in Taiwan over the past 15 years, according to a report set to be released later today.

Since 2015, lawyers and anti-death penalty advocates having been reviewing some 75 judgments in which the death penalty had been handed down by Taiwan’s courts. That work has led to an initial report, reviewed by The News Lens, which exposes a raft of flaws in 10 judgments delivered since 2004.

Four of the judgments relate to cases in which the defendant has already been executed, including Cheng Chieh (鄭捷), the most recent person to be executed in Taiwan. The 23-year-old was executed on May 10, 2016, two years after he killed four and injured 22 in a stabbing spree on the Taipei subway.

Six of the 10 included in the report remain on death row, however, including Lin Yu-ju (林于如), who was sentenced to death in 2013 for the murder of her mother and mother-in-law. She is understood to be the only female death row inmate in Taiwan.

The 72-page report lists 10 key issues, many of which apply across each of the 10 cases. Those issues include; the defendants having official medical records of mental illnesses or defects; expert witnesses failing to sign an affidavit before performing examinations; expert witnesses not being summoned for cross-examination; flaws in the examination questions drafted by the courts; and, mental health examiners considering legal questions in examinations.

According to the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP), which has led the review, the report’s findings should not be seen as a full summary of the situation because researchers are not confident complete information was available in each case reviewed. TAEDP does not rule out adding other cases to the list when more information can be uncovered. The organization has previously identified a lack of access to official documents as a barrier to its work.

Unresolved problems

There are signs that several of the problems identified in the report remain unresolved today. Namely, the issues related to the court’s process for assessing a defendant’s psychiatric or psychological condition, which echo complaints made by Dr. Yee-San Teoh (趙儀珊).

Teoh, an assistant professor of psychology and law at National Taiwan University, is hired by the criminal courts to perform psychological evaluations on defendants who have found to be mentally sound, and to investigate a defendant's background for the purpose of judicial sentencing.

“Some evaluators actually state very clearly in their conclusion that this person has ‘full criminal responsibility’ or that ‘he should be sentenced to death,’” she told The News Lens in October, 2016. “It is a serious violation of our work; we are not supposed to make any comments on criminal responsibility, nor sentencing."

There is no standardized training or formal guidelines for psychiatric and psychological assessments and evaluations in Taiwan. Nor do judges have set guidelines for sentencing. These factors, coupled with a lack of experts, are believed to result in inconsistencies across the handling of mental health issues in the judicial system.

Teoh described the evaluation process in her first case as being “played by ear.”

TAEDP will release the report at an event in Taipei this evening, featuring attorney and legal reform advocate Leon Huang (黃致豪) – he led Cheng Chieh’s defense and is now representing Wang Ching-yu (王景玉), who was charged with beheading a four-year-old in Taipei in March 2016.

Psychiatric testing will play a key role in Wang’s case. Prosecutors have sought the death penalty while defense lawyers argue he is criminally insane; in dispute is his psychiatric state at the time of the killing. In January, Huang told The News Lens that the accused, who is understood to have sought treatment in 2014, suffers from schizophrenia and had fully developed delusional symptoms when he killed the girl, who is known to Taiwan as "Little Light Bulb (小燈泡)."

Active debate

According to many nationwide polls, the majority of Taiwanese support the death penalty. However, TAEDP says that surveys showing public support for capital punishment are skewed because they are typically held immediately after a serious crime. The organization’s own research shows that the more information Taiwanese have about the issue, the more likely they are to be against it.

While Taiwan enjoys a reputation for being progressive on human rights issues, particularly in comparison to China, there is currently a notable lack of political will to change the capital punishment policy.

Seventeen years ago, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in its first term in office, announced its intention to phase out the death penalty. Execution numbers declined steadily, and from 2006 to 2009, the country effectively had a moratorium in place. However, executions restarted under the Kuomintang (KMT) – which held office from 2008 to 2016 – with 33 prisoners executed since 2010.

Despite its leadership in phasing out capital punishment more than a decade ago, and notwithstanding international pressure, mostly by the European diplomatic community in Taipei, the DPP and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been quiet on the issue since retaking office in May last year. It is understood the issue is unlikely to be part of a broad judicial reform program that the government is currently developing.

Forty-two people are on death row in Taiwan. No executions have taken place since the DPP took office in mid-2016.

Read more:
The Legacy of Taiwan's 'Little Light Bulb'
Waking from a Nightmare, 16 Years on Death Row in Taiwan
Subway Murderer’s Lawyer Believes More ‘Random Killings’ Likely
Flying Blind: Mental Health Testing in Taiwan’s Courts

Editor: Olivia Yang