Cheng Hsing-tse: Finally Free from Death Row's Shadow

Cheng Hsing-tse: Finally Free from Death Row's Shadow
Credit: 鄭性澤平反大隊
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Cheng Hsing-tse reflects on a decade living with the prospect of imminent execution after his exoneration and liberation from death row.

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“More than 10 people were executed during my time inside,” says Cheng Hsing-tse (鄭性澤), the man wrongfully convicted of murdering a police officer and sentenced to death 11 years ago.

Cheng vividly recalls the night they came for his friend, Liu Yen-guo (劉炎國). It was April 29, 2014, the day after Liu’s birthday – we’ll never know whether the then Minister of Justice Luo Ying-shay (羅瑩雪) knew about the timing when she signed Liu's death warrant.

“We had been speaking the evening prior because we had met with our lawyers together in the morning,” Cheng says. “That night, we knew he was to be executed because in the evening after 6 p.m. the cells are closed. If someone comes in after that, the inmates know the reason why.”

Cheng’s exoneration last week is a victory for justice but amounts to little more than a skirmish in the war to end capital punishment in Taiwan. The Taiwan High Prosecutors office declined to appeal a retrial decision by the Taichung High Court to clear Cheng of the murder of police officer Su Hsien-pi (蘇憲丕) during a gunfight at a Taichung karaoke bar in 2002.

The court heard new evidence of torture during Cheng’s interrogation, suggesting his confession had been made under duress. Ballistics reports that indicated that the gangster Luo Wu-hsiung (羅武雄) — who was killed by police after initially starting the shooting by firing a pistol at the ceiling — could not be ruled out as responsible for Su’s death.

The absence of action by prosecutors finally ended Cheng’s 15-year wait for freedom, and with it the fear of enduring another evening straining to hear those portentous footsteps.

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Credit: 鄭性澤平反大隊
Cheng reads from a prepared statement on the steps of the courthouse following his not guilty retrial verdict.

“I remember those who were executed,” Cheng says, eyes wistful, now safe in the warm and well-lit office of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (Taiwan Alliance). “There is never any warning. They just come and ask you to change clothes.”

For a time, the warden would prepare offerings the morning after an execution by setting up a table and incense on the sports field. “We would pray towards the execution ground. But that stopped after the warden changed,” Cheng remembers.

The man himself, now approaching 50 years old, is a study in absence. He is easily distracted, though not in the way of diaotouzu – the people you see in the street with heads buried in smartphones. The Yuanli Township native seems just to slip in and out of the present. Moments of joy and liveliness quickly fade into jaded eyes and pockmarked cheeks – marks of the time he has served and will never get back.

The power of the press

His recollection is weak, understandable after more than a decade in prison, and at first he is unforthcoming, perhaps in part due to mistrust of aggressive media that has persistently pressed the case against Cheng on behalf of the victims.

Before his recent release on bail, Cheng wrote a letter to the son of the murdered police officer, feeling he should say something to the boy whose father he stood accused of murdering – now a man in his twenties. “Last year, May 3, I was released from the detention center as the retrial proceedings had opened. I was shocked by how aggressive the media was,” he says. “I knew they would ask me questions about the victims, so I prepared something to give them.”

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Credit: 鄭性澤平反大隊
Text of the letter Cheng addressing the son of murdered police officer Su Hsien-pi.

The ability of the media to influence the severity of sentencing in Taiwan is an issue of ongoing concern. The Judicial Reform Foundation is focused on interrogation procedures, particularly the proclivity for police and prosectors to release information obtained through interrogation to the media prior to trial. “If the media focuses on a serious crime then it is more likely the suspect will be sentenced to death,” says Lin Hsinyi (林欣怡), Executive Director of the Taiwan Alliance.

Since 2009, the alliance has helped rally lawyers, prosecutors and other non-profit groups to support Cheng’s case for the retrial he was eventually granted last year. The effort to clear Cheng’s name has been nothing short of monumental. A book about the case, 十三姨KTV殺人事件, written by Taiwan Alliance board member Chang Chuanfen (張娟芬), helped sway public opinion towards believing in Cheng’s innocence. “I used to have a roommate – a former judge prosecuted for bribery.” Cheng recalls. “I showed the judge the book and after he read it he agreed I was innocent.”

Did that make a difference to how Cheng felt? “It’s the same. I knew that I was innocent. It’s no use him saying it.”

I put it to Cheng that he seems well balanced – no hint of anger in his demeanor. “I was not balanced at all before. People have to find their ways,” he says. “I went through different states of mind … When you are young you are reckless or compulsive. As you get older, you become more level-headed. I look at things without insisting on them going one way or another.” He mentions studying Buddhism as a means of coming to terms with fate.

He tells of his confidence that there was never sufficient evidence to prove him guilty, notably that there were no witness statements suggesting he had been involved in any shooting. “I thought the most I would be charged with was gun possession. My mother was working on collecting bail money, which was NT$300,000 (US$9,940). After the death sentence judgment, I was hopelessly disappointed and surprised.”

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Credit: 鄭性澤平反大隊
Lin Hsinyi, who was instrumental in securing Cheng's innocence, addresses the media following the October court hearing.


Exoneration

His memory of the subsequent appeals is hazy, in part because he assumed the initial verdict suggested that the courts had already presumed his guilt. Only in 2011, when Cheng wrote a letter of complaint about the verdict to the Taiwan Alliance did the Lin and her team commit their limited resources, along with those of the newly established Taiwan Innocence Project, to proving his innocence. From that point on, a team of experienced pro-bono lawyers helped guide Cheng and the alliance through the process of convincing the courts to re-open his case.

Cheng’s stance on the death penalty is dispassionate. He is against it, but not for moral reasons. “There is no standard with which to guide the sentence,” he asserts, adding that his cellmate – the former judge – had told him that even senior Supreme Court justices have no coherent guidelines for how to settle on delivering a death sentence.

“You can ask me if I support the death penalty for all the murders or cases of killing. If there was one standard that brooked no other considerations, maybe, but that would be impossible.”

Cheng is now the fifth man to be exonerated after being initially sentenced to death in Taiwan. The other four are the so-called “Hsichih Trio” of Su Chien-ho (蘇建和) , Chuang Lin-hsun (莊林勳) and Liu Bin-lang (劉秉郎), who were found not guilty in 2012 of a robbery-murder after two decades fighting their case. The final victim is Hsu Tzu-chiang (徐自強) – declared innocent upon his ninth retrial in 2016 after nearly 16 years wrongfully held in custody for the kidnap and murder of a businessman. Hsu was recently awarded nearly US$1 million in compensation.

According to Lin, there are 43 prisoners who have currently been sentenced to death in Taiwan. Yet there are potentially dozens of other cases where the death penalty may be applied in the first or second instance, and the trial is still in progress, which are nigh impossible to confirm because the government does not publish official statistics. “There are two more cases we are researching and we believe may be innocent, but we don’t yet have strong evidence,” Lin says.

Despite the continual evidence of miscarriages of justice that could result in the wrongful execution of innocents, public support for the death penalty remains extraordinarily high, with roughly four out of five people in the country against its abolition, according to various surveys.

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Credit: 鄭性澤平反大隊
Members of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty and others involved in the campaign to clear Cheng celebrate his exoneration.

However, that position is somewhat undermined by the government’s continued failure to move towards abolishing the death penalty. “Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) government has not said anything about going towards the abolition the death penalty even though we signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2009,” Lin says. The ICCPR allows but discourages the death penalty, and since its adoption as Taiwanese law there have been fewer death sentences handed out by courts, but the government is no closer to mustering the executive, legislative or judicial will to put an end to the practice once and for all.

In response to a January 2017 appeal by a group of international human rights experts, Taiwan’s then deputy Minister of Justice Chen Ming-tang (陳明堂) said the government would restart a task force on abolishing the death penalty gradually, but Lin suggests the move is mere deflection.

“I asked [the justice ministry] what their goal is and their timetable but they had not thought about it. They just wanted to show they had replied,” Lin says. “They are not sincere. If they were, they would have steps.”

Lin maintains that if there was greater public awareness of alternatives to execution, such as a sentence of life without parole, then support for the practice would dwindle. “People will say Cheng is innocent, but for others they will say that they are guilty of murder and should be executed. We are trying to show that if you are afraid that people will come out of prison and commit a crime again, then issue a life sentence or life without parole.”

Since 2010, when Taiwan resumed capital punishment after an undeclared moratorium go about five years, there have been 33 executions, the last being Cheng Chieh (鄭捷), the 23-year-old convicted of a mass stabbing on the Taipei metro that left four people dead and two dozen injured. Death row convicts in Taiwan are most often sedated and executed by gunshot to the back of the heart. Serious drug offenses, treason and piracy are among the offenses that can carry the death penalty, but the vast majority are for homicide convictions. There has yet to be an execution carried out in 2017.

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Graphic credit: Yi Fu Lin

The hiatus does not mean there is likely to be a shift in Taiwan’s stance on the issue. That lack of impetus is unlikely to change given public support for the death penalty, and the forthcoming local elections in 2018. “Next year we will talk about alternatives to the death penalty. Politicians will not listen because all they think about is votes,” Lin says, adding that the alliance intends to gather the statistical evidence of public support for life without parole over the death penalty in an effort to cajole the government into action.

Lin picks out South Korea, which has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 1997, as an example Taiwan can follow without significant political upheaval. Mongolia is another light in the regional darkness of state-led executions, having signed the ICCPR in 2012 and voted to abolish the death penalty in December 2015. "The Mongolian president talked to MPs, the administration, the constitutional courts – communicated with the three branches of government – in order to convince them,” Lin says. “Our government needs to show similar leadership.”

As it stands, executive leadership on the issue is notable for its absence. Back when the Taiwan Alliance was formed in 2003, the only means Lin’s two-person team had of discovering who might be on death row was trawling newspaper cuttings. By 2005, her team had managed to track down 20 or so inmates, and from that point cooperated with the Legal Aid Foundation and other non-profits to ensure that every person sentenced to death was sent a letter with an offer of legal support.

“We still don’t know the whole picture - no one informs us if there is someone going to trial,” Lin says. “We are helping around 10 cases on first or second trial at the moment. But we know we are missing some. For those who have hired their own lawyers, we have no resources to gather their names.”

For the time being, it is time to cerebrate Cheng’s release. While on bail, he has visited old friends, including those he left behind in the Taichung death row detention center. He intends to continue campaigning against the death penalty and for the freedom of others the Taiwan Alliance believes to be innocent. Now he is finally cleared, he also has the opportunity to leave Taiwan. Last year, Lin visited a temple in Kyoto, Japan, to pray for a positive outcome for Cheng’s verdict. “This morning a lawyer reminded me that we should plan to go back and a lot of other supporters said they wanted to go with us,” Lin says. “Of course we will do that, and if Cheng wants, we can go to the U.S. and Europe. He says I can arrange the trips for him…”

“I’m just the baggage,” Cheng quips, beaming broadly across the table.


Editor: Morley J Weston.

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