Innocent Criminals: The Long Wait for Taiwanese Justice

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / 達志影像
Why you need to know

A lie left Su Pin-kun fighting for his innocence for over 30 years. He is still at war.

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Su Pin-kun (蘇炳坤), 68, stands in front of a judge at the Taiwan High Court seeking to be retried for a crime he did not commit. The stocky, dark-skinned man sports a white short-sleeved polo shirt and gray trousers. Intense yet weary eyes stare out from thin-rimmed glasses — he looks like a battle-scarred war vet but when he speaks his voice is strong and firm.

“The president’s amnesty didn't give me back my innocence.”

The man chokes up. The hearing, along with the glorious summer afternoon outside the air-conditioned courtroom, proceeds.

The lie

On June 19, 1986, Kuo Chung-hsiung (郭中雄) told the lie that would set Su on the run for a decade and see him falsely imprisoned for a further three years. Kuo was 34 at the time, and had just been arrested for the robbery of a jewelry store in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan. The owner of the store suffered a knife injury to his head during the incident. In the course of the interrogation, the police pinned Kuo for another jewelry heist that had occurred earlier in the year. He pleaded guilty to both crimes, but claimed that Su, then 36, was an accomplice in the first robbery, along with a third person who it was later proved did not exist.

"We sometimes joke that writing an application for a retrial is like sending out a love letter and then getting rejected." Lo Shih-hsiang, executive director of the Taiwan Innocence Project.

Kuo was likely nursing a grudge. Su had been his boss while running a successful furniture store, and had deducted his wages after catching him stealing materials. Kuo later retracted the confession implicating Su, saying it had been made under duress as a the result of police torture. It didn’t matter — Su was convicted of robbery and attempted murder in 1986.

Kuo was sentenced to 16 years jail time and was released on parole in 1992.

The miscarriage of justice

On Sept. 11, 1986, Su was found innocent at the first instance court but just three months later was sentenced to an unappealable 15 years in prison for a felony offense by the court of second instance.

Thus began Su’s decade on the run.

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On June 12, 1997, Su was arrested upon a visit to Linkou Chang Gung Memorial Hospital and was imprisoned for over two years before being released on medical parole. In the interim, prosecutors had requested a retrial of his case four times. The attorney general had also made four extraordinary appeals. All were denied.

But in 2000, Su was granted amnesty by former Taiwan President Chen Shui-bien (陳水扁).

When Su applied for compensation for the time he had spent in custody and prison, his application was rejected by the Hsinchu District Court on the grounds that the president’s amnesty did not mean he was innocent. Thus began his long fight to reclaim his innocence.

The Taiwan Association for Innocence

Su decided to request a retrial with the help of the Taiwan Association for Innocence. The case raises debate over whether or not a retrial can be requested when amnesty has been granted.

Su has consistently protested his innocence since the morning police pounded on his door and hauled him down to Qingcaohu Police Station (青草湖派出所) in Hsinchu. According to Su, the police began to torture him when he refused to confess. They stripped off his clothes, tied his hands and feet to a chair, and hosed him down. He was also kicked repeatedly in the lower waist.

He refused to buckle.

“I almost died,” he says, 31 years later at the Taiwan High Court. “I will not give in.”

At the time of writing, no member of Taiwan’s judicial system, not the police who allegedly tortured Su, the prosecutors who falsely accused him, or the judge who mistakenly convicted him, have been penalized.

蘇炳坤
Photo credit: 公共電視畫面截圖
Su Pin-kun (second right) at the hearing for his retrial request at the Taiwan High Court on Aug. 28.
Fighting against wrongful convictions

A few days before Su’s retrial request hearing, The News Lens sat down with Lo Shih-hsiang (羅士翔), executive director of the Taiwan Innocence Project (TIP), also known as the Taiwan Association for Innocence.

Since its founding in 2012, the association has received over 500 case applications and is currently working on 23 of them, including Su’s.

“He’s an innocent criminal,” says Lo from behind black rectangular glasses.

Lo has been with TIP for over four years, but still chokes up when talking about certain cases, Su’s included.

“Su’s strong attitude towards his innocence encourages us because it shows how important it is to him,” Lo says.

TIP only accepts post-conviction case applications — those with more serious sentences prioritized — in which the convicts claim innocence on the basis of invalid forensic evidence or state misconduct. Following acceptance by TIP’s evaluation committee, each case is assigned to one of 12 board members, who then organize a team of attorneys and law students.

Throughout our conversation, the phrase “cracking the courthouse door” keeps coming up. In reality, most of the association’s cases are rejected. Su’s is a rare case in which the Taiwan High Court was willing to hold a hearing for his retrial request.

According to Lo, in many instances judges and prosecutors are unwilling to revisit old ground. The biggest challenge, he says, is communication.

“On the surface, it seems like they are our opponents because we are telling them they got it wrong,” says Lo. “But what we want to say is that we are on the same team. No one wants to convict an innocent person. We’re not saying a judge is bad at his or her job. It's about not seeing another wrongful conviction take place.”

Currently, communication between TIP and judges is limited to the legal documents dispatched to courthouses in the hope of raising attention for the cases they are representing.

"We sometimes joke that writing an application for a retrial is like sending out a love letter and getting rejected," says Lo. “It [retrial requests] should be taken more seriously, and not evaluated solely on the basis of a written application.”

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Photo Credit: Olivia Yang / The News Lens
A map of wrongful convictions TIP is currently working on.

But the executive director notes that interaction has improved since he joined TIP, with Su’s case a prime example.

Forced confessions and mis-identification of suspects play a prominent role in the wrongful convictions. The types of forced confessions vary. In Su’s case, he was physically tortured. Kuo, the man who framed Su, was also physically abused into making the false confession that sealed Su’s fate.

Lo says incidents of people being tortured into making false confessions came to an end just over a decade ago with the case of Cheng Hsing-tse (鄭性澤) — Cheng was wrongfully convicted for a murder that put him on death row for 10 years before he was exonerated in 2016. But the TIP executive director says that there are still occasions when people are coerced into taking the blame for crimes they did not commit.

However, Chiu Hsien-chih (邱顯智), a human rights lawyer based in Hsinchu, is skeptical as to whether coerced confessions are really on the wane.

“The police are often in too much of a hurry to get an answer,” he says. “A case might have a different conclusion if they could just wait a few more days.”

As for identifying suspects, Lo says Taiwan’s present system is too complicated. It regulates details like the number of photos that should be included in a gallery (there should never be just one photo for obvious reasons); having the witness confirm details of the suspect’s facial features before making the identification; informing the witness the perpetrator might not be in the photo alley or line-up; the list goes on.

“The reason it’s so complicated is to avoid incorrect identifications because identification of a suspect is oftentimes very powerful evidence,” says Lo. “But it’s fair to say no one abides by these regulations in Taiwan.”

Another case TIP is working on also involves flawed identification of the suspect, even though it took place in 2005, when Taiwan already had an “ improved identification system,” according to Lo.

Liu Cheng-fu (劉正富), was an employee at Formosa Plastics Group when he was sentenced to nine years in jail. A teenager had died in 2004 after sustaining head injuries in a brawl. Eight months later, five witnesses identified Liu as the man who dealt the fatal blows. Liu produced a convenience store receipt as an alibi, but it disappeared at the police station. Other than the witness identifications, there was no evidence to show Liu had been at the scene.

The attorney general has made four extraordinary appeals for Liu’s case. All have been denied. Liu has been in prison for over four years.

“Usually only those on death row receive this amount of attention from the attorney general,” says Lo from across his neatly kept desk. “But in Liu’s case, the attorney general has made three extraordinary appeals, all of which have been denied. This shows how difficult it is to overturn wrongful convictions, especially those who have been convicted on the basis of identification.”

The TIP executive director says that in the past 15 years, only five cases have been overturned because of extraordinary appeals made by the attorney general. This shows that extraordinary appeals “are no use when it comes to wrongful convictions.”

“To be honest, I kind of knew extraordinary appeals were hopeless, but at the end of the day we still hold out hope. It’s like there’s confusion about the terminology. “Extraordinary appeals” sounds somehow out of the ordinary, when in reality they shouldn’t be,” Lo says.

In addition to forced confessions and flaws in Taiwan’s suspect identification procedures, human rights lawyer Chiu says the country’s forensic scientists “lack expertise in physics and chemistry.” He stresses how more training in these areas could improve judicial accuracy.

Chiu flags the case of Cheng Hsing-tse (鄭性澤) to reinforce his point. The victim — a police officer — was shot three times. Judging from the directions of the shots, the forensic report said there were two guns. However, when the case was put before physics professors and students, they concurred that the victim’s movement had resulted in the entry wounds' change of angle. That assessment later proved correct.

Autopsy reports also tend to count as important evidence, but Chiu points out that there is a national shortage of medical examiners — there are just 30 in Taiwan meaning each body is usually examined by just one person.

“Having a second opinion might provide additional evidence,” the lawyer suggests.

The victims’ view

While those fighting wrongful convictions have it tough, the victims or family members face a different but equally tortuous ordeal.

“Most of the time the victim’s family can’t accept the fact that the wrong person was convicted,” says Chen Meng-hsiu (陳孟秀), lawyer and chair of the Association for Victims Support (AVS). “It’s difficult to change their mind once an idea has taken hold.”

The police and media in Taiwan “often tell people the ending of a story too early” because most Taiwanese hold high expectations of police officers, says the lawyer. This corroborates Chiu’s point about the police rushing to solve a case in the face of public pressure. They often induce the general public to believe a certain person committed the crime when a case is still under investigation, Chen says, adding that this then makes it harder for people to accept wrongful convictions.

According to the lawyer, the Taiwan government currently offers few resources for victims’ families, who usually need psychological support as well as that of legal experts to explain case developments. Taiwanese society also tends to “stereotype victims” by asserting they should maintain negative emotions towards the offender or the legal system, which adds to their psychological stress.

“It’s not only the judicial system that needs to be reformed, but the police and society also require further education,” says Chen.

She describes the police’s attitude towards suspects as often “barbaric, even when a lawyer is present.” The mindset that a person is innocent until proven guilty has to be reinforced within the police force, says the AVS chair. She adds that educating the public on investigation and trial procedures can help in avoiding wrongful convictions or understanding them better if they occur.

“The victim’s family don’t want a fake defendant,” adds human rights lawyer Chiu. “It causes them deep pain when they learn the wrong person has been convicted.”

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Photo Credit: Olivia Yang / The News Lens
Lawyers Chen Meng-hsiu (left) and Chiu Hsien-chih.
The long wait

For Su and Liu, and all the others like them who hope to have their innocence restored, the wait goes on. There is no saying when that wait will end. Every retrial request sent to court presents a glimmer of hope. Every day that goes by waiting for the court’s decision, the legal teams and their charges convince themselves it’s a good sign because it means the court is considering the request. And every time a request is denied, it gets a little harder to carry on fighting.

“We’re seeing innocent people considering guilty pleas because they think they might be released from prison earlier if they do,” says TIP’s Lo.

“Overturning wrongful convictions is not easy,” he says. “For the legal team working on the case, it’s something they believe they should do, despite the obstacles. But for the people who have been wrongfully convicted, being imprisoned for something they didn’t do confronts them every day. It’s not a question of success or failure, just one of waiting, waiting without an end in sight.”

Editor’s note:

  1. On Sept. 19, the Taiwan High Court announced Su’s case was granted a retrial. If he is declared innocent, Su will be eligible to apply for compensation in which he may receive up to NT$5 million (US$165,000).

  2. On Sept. 29, the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office appealed the Taiwan High Court’s decision to grant Su a retrial. The Taiwan High Prosecutors Office asserts that Su was granted amnesty in 2000 and therefore he has no case to retry. The case cannot be retried unless the Taiwan High Court turns down the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office’s appeal. All retrial procedures are currently on hold.

  3. The Aug. 28 hearing for Su’s retrial request was fully video recorded and streamed on the High Court’s website. The Sept. 19 court decision was broadcast live. The two incidents were the first time a court hearing and ruling have been broadcasted live in Taiwan.

Editor: David Green

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