A Taiwan Witch Burning

A Taiwan Witch Burning
What you need to know

If it is true, Lin Yu-ru's story may go a long way in explaining how her life deteriorated to the point that she decided to kill her husband. Does it also mean that one of Taiwan’s most infamous serial killers isn’t responsible for the death of her mother and mother-in-law?

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On January 26, 2010, a 29-year-old woman sat in a police interrogation room in Taiwan and confessed to killing her mother, her mother-in-law and her husband. Their deaths had occurred over the previous two years but police had only become suspicious of Lin Yu-ru (林于如) when an insurance company alerted them that Lin had claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars in life insurance after each death.

When news of her arrest broke, Lin was swiftly branded as a “Black Widow” and set upon by Taiwan’s piranha-like tabloid media. She was immediately guilty in the eyes of the country’s prosecutors.

Three and a half years later, despite partially retracting her confession – she now says she only killed her husband – and the acknowledgement by a judge that her low IQ clearly met the threshold for intellectual disability, the Supreme Court handed down its final sentence and Lin, then 32, became the only woman on death row in Taiwan. Today, Lin is in a prison in Taichung, central Taiwan, awaiting her fate.

Meanwhile, a new legal team has taken up her defense. They have uncovered a history of domestic abuse, chronic depression, pharmaceutical addiction and attempted suicide; a past which they say was never considered by the courts and went unnoticed – or unreported – by the media. Lawyers have also identified a raft of glaring legal issues with her case, which they believe amounts to a miscarriage of justice. A warrant for her execution has not yet been signed. Lawyers are fighting to have her case reopened before it is too late.

The deaths

According to Lin’s case file, the first of the three deaths occurred at about 2 p.m. on Nov. 10, 2008. Lin, had earlier that day traveled to her mother’s house in Tainan, southern Taiwan. After an argument about gambling debt, Lin is said to have pushed her mother, Hou Yue-yun (林候月雲) down a stairwell, killing her. About an hour later, Chen Bo-yan (陳伯諺), the son of her mother’s boyfriend, found Hou’s body and called an ambulance. Police did not consider the death as suspicious at the time.

Two months before Hou’s death, on Sept. 22, 2008, Lin applied for life insurance for both her mother and her mother-in-law, Zheng Hui-sheng (鄭惠升). On Nov. 18, 2008, eight days after her mother had died, the insurance was claimed. On Christmas Day that year, a check for NT$5 million (US$165,000) was deposited into Lin’s bank account.

Five months later, on May 27, 2009, Zheng was rushed to a hospital emergency ward just after midnight. She received treatment and was sent home but returned to the hospital later that afternoon. It appears Lin and her husband, Liu Yu-hang (劉宇航), then took alternate shifts staying with Zheng through the night. Prosecutors allege that at about 4 a.m. the following day, Lin returned to hospital and added crushed sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medicine into Zheng’s intravenous drip. Two hours later, Lin pressed the hospital’s emergency button but when doctors arrived Zheng showed no signs of life and efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful.

About one month after the death of his mother, in the early hours of June 25, 2009, Liu himself was rushed to hospital. Police say Lin went to hospital with her husband and added poison into his IV drip before leaving his bedside at 2:50 a.m. Forty minutes later, a nurse discovered the intravenous fluid was discolored and connected him to a new IV bag. Just before 5:00 a.m, Lin returned to the hospital, questioned the nurse and was later stopped after again attempting to add poison to her husband’s IV drip, the case file says. It does not appear that police were alerted to any issues at the time.

In the morning of July 17, 2009, about three weeks after that episode, Liu was again sent to hospital. Two days later, Lin is said to have arranged for her husband to move to a single-patient room. At about 5:00 p.m., she is believed to have blended together another homemade concoction of poison. Once she was alone in the room with Liu, she injected it into his IV bag. Six hours later, a nurse found Liu in a weak state. He died at about 2 a.m. on July 20, 2009.

In the following months, Lin is said to have gone on a gambling spree, placing bets of up to US$60,000 (NT$1.8 million) on the underground “Mark Six” lottery. By December 2009, however, after being alerted to the further life insurance claims for Liu and Zheng, police obtained search warrants for her house and reportedly found substances similar to those they believed were used in the murders. She was taken into custody.

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Animated images and videos re-enacting crimes are popular in Taiwan and were used frequently in the coverage of Lin’s case. The images above and below are from Apple Daily.
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Taiwan reacts

News of Lin’s arrest and the story – a crazed woman who had killed three family members, including her own mother, and claimed their life insurance to cover her massive gambling debts – spread like wildfire. The country’s television talk show hosts and their equally excitable panelists feasted like a pack of hyenas. Lin was commonly referred to as “Jīng Shì Xí Fù.” The name does not translate directly into English but means something of a cross between “Black Widow” and a “frighteningly evil” daughter-in-law.

Chang Chuan-fen ( 張娟芬), a Taiwanese legal researcher and judicial reform expert, says the name helped news producers dramatize their coverage for an enthralled audience. The name itself, “Jīng Shì Xí Fù,” was the name of a character in a television series popular in Taiwan at the time. It made Lin instantly recognizable and reinforced the presumption of guilt.

“People didn’t stop to ask if she actually did it,” Chang says. “The stigma stayed.”

The question being asked by prime time television hosts, before the case was heard in court, was, “What would be a suitable punishment?”

This was early 2010. It was the “worst possible timing” for Lin, Chang believes.

Ten years earlier, Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in its first term in office, announced its intention to phase out the death penalty. Execution numbers declined steadily. From 2006 to 2009, the country effectively had a moratorium in place. The Kuomintang (KMT) retook power in 2008 under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and for two years anti-death penalty campaigners remained hopeful Taiwan would continue on the path toward abolishment. However, by 2009, a public campaign to resume executions was mounting, led by prominent victims’ family groups. Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) resigned as Minister of Justice in March, 2010, after a public backlash to her stated refusal to sign execution orders during her tenure.

“The [death penalty] issue had reemerged and was attracting an unprecedented level of attention,” Chang says. “A huge amount of the focus was on why no one had been executed for four years.”

Chang, who examined 62 death penalty cases in Taiwan as part of a doctoral thesis published this year, concedes it is “difficult to establish a causal relationship” between the media coverage of Lin’s case and the ultimate decision of judges to send her to the gallows.

Still, Chang gives the example of inconsistencies in how polygraph tests have been used in serious crime trials. During the district court hearing, Lin passed a polygraph test, in which she said her husband gave her a substance and directed her to add it to her mother-in-law’s UV drip. The court rejected the test as “unreliable.” In another recent capital punishment case, the defendant claimed to be innocent but failed a polygraph test and the result was used as evidence.

“They just select the evidence to support the preconceptions they already had,” Chang says.

Taiwan has an automatic right of appeal for serious criminal cases and, between 2011 and 2013, Lin’s case moved through the lower and high courts before a final appeal was heard by the Supreme Court. In the first judgment, delivered in May 2011, Lin was given life sentences for the murder of her mother and mother-in-law, and the death penalty for the murder of her husband. The High Court in 2012 changed the death sentence to life in prison. That was appealed and in June 2013 the Supreme Court handed down its final judgment, confirming the death penalty for the then 32-year-old.

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An image of Lin from a television news show during one of her trials.
The trial

Lin did initially confess to each of the three murders but when it came to the first trial she retracted the statement and has since said that police investigators threatened to implicate her sister in the crimes if she did not admit guilt.

Despite the retraction, prosecutors relied heavily on the confessions. Chang believes they had to because “the first two murders completely lacked any evidence.”

Autopsies were never carried out on Lin’s mother, Hou Yue-yan, or her mother-in-law. The insurance company did investigate Hou’s death and ruled it to be caused by an accident before paying out the NT$5 million life insurance claim. Instead, the prosecution relied on other evidence, including the initial confession, the life insurance claims and Lin’s massive gambling debts. Blood samples taken from the second and third victims also reportedly contained poisonous substances found by police in Lin’s home. She had reportedly also purchased life insurance for her son in May 2009, which prosecutors alleged was proof she was also planning to kill him.

Chang believes that the testimonial evidence was “too weak” to convict someone of triple murder, including matricide – the latter charge carries more weight in Taiwan.

Fault for several procedural problems appear to lie with the judges. For instance, a court expert was brought in during the first trial to account for how Zheng, the mother-in-law, had died. According to the hospital’s cause of death certificate, Zheng had suffered a heart attack. A forensics expert was asked to determine the cause of death based only on analysis of Zheng’s medical records. He told the court the cause of death was unlikely to have been illness, but the expert did not exclude the possibility.

In its final judgment, the court said that the expert had ruled out the possibility of a heart attack.

“The mistake was carried through the courts as ‘fact,’” Chang notes.

Between them, Chang and Lin’s new legal team have identified a handful of other process issues in Lin’s case, which, they argue, may not prove her innocence but do amount to proof of an unfair trial. These include: judges receiving the prosecutor’s entire case dossier months before Lin’s legal team was allowed to present even a small portion of its defense; Lin was blocked from attending her own Supreme Court hearing; and, there were inconsistencies with the treatment of evidence. Such points, they concede, are actually relatively pedestrian in Taiwan’s criminal justice system, which is weighted in favor of prosecutors and therefore do not hold much promise in helping to overturn her conviction.

Possibly their best hope in having the trial reopened, or at the least the sentence downgraded, is to have the courts properly consider the evidence that Lin had serious mental health issues at the time of the deaths.

At least some fault for the shortcomings in Lin’s trial should also be apportioned to initial defense attorney. Chou Han-wei (周漢威), Taiwan Legal Aid Foundation chief executive and involved in Lin’s appeal, laments his organization was not involved in the early stages of Lin’s case. A major problem for lawyers picking up the case now is that the initial defense attorney should have requested a list of evidence, including the mental health claims, to be investigated. Even if the investigation had not been carried out in the first trial, the request would have left the door open to be pursued in the higher courts, Chang says.

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An image of Lin's husband, Liu Yu-hang, from a television news show.
Lin’s mental condition

Earlier this year, the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) released a review of 75 judgments in which the death penalty had been handed down by Taiwan’s courts over the past 15 years. The report exposes a raft of flaws in 10 judgments delivered since 2004, including Lin’s – the defendants in four of those 10 cases have since been executed. One of the reasons Lin’s case is included in the list is because of her exceptionally low IQ.

The average IQ in Taiwan is 104. Lin, when tested by the courts, had an IQ of 57. Under classifications used by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013 to help describe a person’s intellectual disability, someone with an IQ of 50-55 to approximately 70 has “mild intellectual disability.” An IQ of 35-40 to 50-55 is considered “moderate intellectual disability” and an IQ of 71 to 80 reflects borderline intellectual deficiency.

Also, a psychiatric evaluation of Lin, presented in her trial, confirmed that Lin suffered from serious depression. Even the prosecutor acknowledged that Lin was “a patient of major depressive disorder.”

However, the judgment said: “Whether the defendant is retarded or not cannot be determined only by the previously mentioned psychological test results. The defendant has a diploma from a vocational school, runs a business producing and trading tofu, is a 27-year-old adult, committed the crime for the sake of insurance, and was calm when she killed Liu Yu-hang […] and she gambles on a regular basis [.] Judging from all this, it cannot be concluded that her IQ is significantly lower than the average person. Naturally, it is difficult to spare her from the death penalty for a disability.”

As Chang writes in her thesis, “The judgment overrides the IQ test and psychological diagnosis and sentences a defendant with mental retardation and depression to death.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United Nations adopted resolutions urging countries still using the death penalty that it should not be used "on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder" – a term that includes both “mentally retarded” [now more commonly termed intellectual disability] and “mentally ill.” Taiwan’s law allows for someone with a severe mental disability at the time of the crime to be declared unfit to stand trial.

The history never told

Lin’s defense, and possibly her life, now depends heavily on her new defense attorney, Lin Chih-chung (林志忠). His office, in central Taichung, is similar to that of any underpaid public defense lawyer anywhere; towers of papers and folders rise from every flat surface, from desks, drawers, table tops and window sills, spilling onto the floor. Inside one of the many bulging manila folders is the material related to Lin’s case; reams of court records and lawyers’ notes, pages of family trees and judgment summaries, and, several letters from Lin herself written on colored lined paper with flower imprints, thanking her lawyers for their work.

One particularly critical document is a background report on Lin. It was written by a court-appointed doctor and is based on what Lin told the doctor about her childhood, adolescence and adult years prior to her arrest.

If it is true, the story may go a long way in explaining how Lin’s life deteriorated to the point that she decided to kill her husband – that murder, which she clumsily carried out almost in plain sight of hospital staff, she does not deny committing. It also adds weight to her claims that she did not kill her mother; that the gambling debts were also incurred together with her husband; and, raises the question of whether her husband was, at the least, complicit for the death of his own mother.

As told to The News Lens by the Legal Aid Foundation’s Chou, Lin was born into a “good family” but her childhood was scarred after her father died. After leaving high school, Lin and her sister, who she remained close to, went to work in a nightclub and it was there she met Liu, her future husband. Lin fell pregnant twice to Liu. Both times the pregnancy was aborted. When she became pregnant a third time, she was warned another abortion could result in her permanently unable to have children.

As is customary in Taiwanese culture, Lin and Liu were married before their child was born and Lin moved in with Liu’s family. In the years that followed, Lin was regularly beaten by her husband. Domestic violence was normal in the family and her mother-in-law, whom she would be later convicted of killing, was likewise beaten by Liu’s father. Regularly, after particularly bad beatings from their husbands, the two women would go together to see their family doctor. They would be patched up and given medication to dull the pain. During this time, while still raising her young son, Lin became addicted to painkillers, sleeping pills and other anti-anxiety prescription drugs. Along with her husband and the rest of his family, she started gambling heavily. She also suffered from major depression and tried to kill herself on several occasions.

The story is incomplete. Still, Lin’s lawyers believe many of these details, including the frequent domestic violence, long-term depression and multiple suicide attempts, can be verified. During the final appeals process, her defense team tried to subpoena the family doctor who had treated Lin and her mother-in-law – they say the doctor supports Lin’s statements as true. The court rejected their bid. It also rejected a bid to subpoena Lin’s sister. Chou appealed to the Supreme Court based on the lack of proper investigation into Lin’s claims. The appeal was denied, too.

Not necessarily unusual

For some, Lin’s story, as it is now relayed by her legal team may seem outlandish.

Whilst certainly unusual, taken individually, the issues Lin faced – domestic violence, depression, addiction to prescription drugs and gambling addiction – are not uncommon in Taiwanese society.

In 2016, 117,550 domestic violence cases were reported to officials in Taiwan, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Department of Protective Services. That is 322 each day, or one every five minutes. Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation’s Tseng Ching-yi (曾瀞儀) told The News Lens in June that the traditional patriarchal family system is still a key factor in the prevalence of abuse against women.

The number of people in Taiwan with affective psychoses, which includes major depressive and bipolar disorders, increased from 199,000 in 2006 to 249,000 in 2014, a 25 percent increase. Shen Li-jong (諶立中) is the director of the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Department of Mental and Oral Health. In an interview at his Taipei office in January, the former clinical psychiatrist was outspoken about the chronic underfunding of mental health care in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s high consumption rate of pharmaceutical medication, arguably a downside of the country’s universal healthcare system, is also well-documented. On average, Taiwanese visit a doctor nearly 16 times a year– more than double the OECD average and nearly four times that of the United States. According to a report by PWC, sales revenue for pharmaceutical companies from Taiwan’s domestic market increased from US$3 billion in 2004 to US$5.4 billion in 2013. Prescription drugs sales account for more than 90 percent of the total pharma market. PWC even noted that as prescribing and dispensing functions are not separated in most hospitals and clinics, “doctors have both the incentive and ability to over-prescribe drugs.”

As Shen noted, Taiwan’s government spends about 1.4 percent of its entire budget on mental health care, but 97 percent of that is related to clinical visits and medication subsidies, via the country’s universal health care system.

“I think the [spending on] medication in Taiwan is enough,” Shen said.

Illegal gambling too is a common pastime in Taiwan, despite the country’s low crime rate. According to academic research, after authorities tried to put an end to the illegal “Da Jia Le,” or “Everybody Happy,” lottery in the late 1980s – by stopping selling tickets for the country’s legal lottery – many in Taiwan simply switched to gambling on the results of Hong Kong’s “Liu He Cai,” or “Mark Six” lottery.

“The great mass fervor did not subside as the Taiwanese government had hoped, but has instead lasted to the present day,” write academics Cheng Fang-yen and Harry Yi-jui Wu from Kaohsiung Medical University and Oxford University in a 2012 paper.

Giving some insight as to how Lin Yu-ru, an addicted “Liu He Cai” player, would be viewed by mainstream society, the researchers also noted Taiwanese see gamblers as “morally decayed [who] deserve the consequences of their gambling.”

“Traditionally, gambling in Taiwan has not been considered to be a psychological problem,” they said.

Where to from here?

Any criminal defense in Taiwan is tough. There are a handful of notable cases where wrongful convictions or sentences have been overturned but these are in a significant minority.

Prosecutors have a high conviction success rate by international standards and continue to enjoy advantages which are embedded into the judicial system.

A major program of judicial system reform, including proposals to introduce a jury system and take power away from the public prosecution service and judiciary, is underway. In 2015, then opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) used the issue as a major part of her presidential campaign platform. In her inauguration speech in May 2016, President Tsai said “the judicial system has lost the trust of the people” and reform “is the issue the people of Taiwan care the most about.” She signaled the forming of a national congress to advance reform. The congress has faced constant delays and those closely involved in the process are now disheartened about the likelihood of the Tsai administration prosecuting any major meaningful changes.

In the meantime, Lin’s legal team is quietly planning a series of final appeals to have the case reopened and evidence properly reinvestigated. Other options include asking President Tsai to have Lin’s sentence commuted to life behind bars.

They are wary, of course, of what could happen if Lin’s case is again at the center of public attention. They fear that the same fervor drummed up at the time of her arrest could reappear, pressuring Ministry of Justice officials to seek an execution warrant.

Lin and Liu’s son was adopted-out to a foreign couple and now lives overseas.

Editor: Olivia Yang

Additional reporting: Rosemary Chen and Shannon Lin

Taiwan death penalty facts
  • Forty-three people are on death row in Taiwan. Lin is the only woman.
  • 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.
  • The Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty says that surveys showing public support for capital punishment are skewed because they are typically held immediately after a violent 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.
  • 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 DPP in its first term in office, announced its intention to phase out the death penalty. Execution numbers declined steadily. From 2006 to 2009, the country effectively had a moratorium in place.
  • 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 U.K. and European diplomatic community in Taipei, the DPP and President Tsai have been quiet on the issue since retaking office in May last year.