The man who killed a four-year-old girl in a random attack in Taipei last year has avoided the death penalty because he suffers from schizophrenia.

Wang Ching-yu (王景玉), 33 at the time, was charged with the girl's murder, which took place on March 28, 2016. Prosecutors sought the death penalty while defense lawyers argued he is criminally insane; in dispute was his psychiatric state at the time of the killing.

He was today sentenced to life imprisonment.

Judges at Shilin District Court said Wang was suffering from schizophrenia and could not be sentenced to death, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reports.

According to CNA, judges cited international conventions that disallow the death penalty against defendants with schizophrenia. However, they said Wang had “normal self-control ability at the time of the act” and did not qualify for penalty exemption.

The high-profile decision is significant for Taiwan. Human rights groups believe defendants with mental health issues have been executed in the past because of serious flaws in the court system.

The prosecution is expected to appeal the verdict, a lawyer involved in the case told The News Lens.

Taiwan’s Little Light Bulb

On the morning of March 28, 2016, the girl, who is known to the nation as "Little Light Bulb (小燈泡)" was riding her bicycle just meters ahead of her mother on a Taipei street when she was suddenly grabbed and decapitated with a cleaver.

News of the attack on the four-year-old spread like wildfire across Taiwan. As is often the case with a high-profile violent crime in Taiwan, there were immediate calls for the perpetrator to be executed.

Wang is understood to have sought psychiatric treatment in 2014. His lawyer has previously told The News Lens that over at least four years prior to the attack, Wang had drifted in and out of a "world" in which he is the reincarnation of a Yiao (堯) dynasty emperor.

"He can pardon himself in his own kingdom; he is the emperor,” the lawyer said. “He has written 29 journals of this stuff.”

Handling of mental health issues

According to a report released in March, 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.

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 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 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.

Death penalty debate in Taiwan

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

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.

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

Mental Health Issues Mishandled in 10 Death Penalty Cases in Taiwan

Editor: Edward White