A heated debate has emerged over the recent sentencing of a street vendor, Xia Junfeng, who killed two chengguan (urban management officers) in 2009 after being taken to their office for questing. Xia was originally found guilty of murder by a local court and was sentenced to death. He appealed against the sentencing to the Liaoning Provincial Higher People's Court, but the court upheld the previous verdict on May 9. Public anger over the verdict has led some scholars to suggest introducing a "people's jury" into Xia's case, a system that some areas in China are already experimenting with. But is it doable? How would such a system work, and can it become a standard part of the Chinese legal system? Global Times (GT) reporter Gao Lei talked to Wu Danhong (Wu), a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, on these issues.
GT: The court convicted Xia of deliberate murder, but the public generally consider he acted in self-defense, and that he should be charged with manslaughter at the worst, and certainly not given the death penalty. Do you think bringing a jury into this case would help the court deliver a more convincing verdict?
Wu: China's chengguan have a bad record in dealing with street vendors and other socially disadvantaged groups. They tend to use violence against those who refuse to listen to their instructions and have caused some serious incidents over the past few years.
Their poor reputation has made the public believe that Xia was bullied badly by the two chengguan officers and was forced to defend himself with a knife, which ended in him killing two of them. But from a legal perspective, the bad record of chengguan as a whole should not be taken as evidence in this particular case.
In my opinion, this case needs to be examined particularly carefully because the death penalty is involved.
There are some important questions that are yet to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt, and both the murder verdict given by the court and the defense lawyer's claim that Xia acted in reasonable self-defense lack strong evidence. My own understanding, based on the evidence currently presented by both parties, is that Xia's action probably constitute manslaughter after over-reacting in self-defense, which doesn't deserve capital punishment.
Bringing a jury in will help add some transparency to the court proceedings, but the jury would also need to determine the case based on evidences, not on feelings or stereotypes. It is really hard to say what a jury can achieve in this case, but if the court can back up its verdict with strong evidence that can be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt, we must accept it.
GT: Does the legal community support bringing in a jury system? Why?
Wu: Although the jury system hasn't been formally incorporated into national law, some local and provincial courts have used the Chinese-style "people's jury" system on a trial basis in court, and the result, according to local court officials, are very positive.
However, it is essential to understand that the people's jury system in China is different than that in the US or UK, where the jury is in charge of giving a verdict and is sometimes required to participate in the sentencing process.
In China, the opinions of the people's jury can serve as a reference point for a judge to determine verdicts and sentences. The judge still has the ultimate right to make a final judgment that may run contrary to the jury's conclusion. Therefore, in the legal community, while some support this Chinese-style jury system and believe this is a brilliant idea, others only see it as political spin.
Debates regarding how to transform the jury system from theory into practices are also building up in the legal community.
But generally speaking, China's courts have become more willing to accept juries, mostly due to public dissatisfaction with the lack of fairness and transparency in some court proceedings and the enormous pressure put on judges, who have to take the responsibility for making wrong judgments.
GT: What's the difference between these "people's juries" and the existing "people's juror" system?
Wu: What the people's juror system does is to set up a juror pool consisting of some 30 people who have a good educational background. Then two people are picked randomly from this pool to become people's jurors and they assist the judge in determining verdicts and sentences.
Compared to that system, the new "people's jury" system has a wider public base because it selects people with varied social backgrounds to join a larger jury. This can help jurors present a fairer and more rational public understanding of a case in the court and subsequently lead to a more convincing verdict and sentence.
Since China hasn't formally made the jury system part of the law, the jury's role and responsibility are often ambiguous and unprotected. Thus, some in the legal community are worried that if the jury's findings are contrary to the judge's verdict, it will cause more damage to the courts' credibility.
GT: In criminal cases involving perpetuators from socially disadvantaged groups, the media and the public tend to press the court to pardon the accused or give them lighter sentences. Do you think this undermines judicial independence?
Wu: The media needs to be careful with their reports and avoid over-exaggerations. But since the court is still too heavily influenced by government authorities, a certain level of pressure from the media and the public will help counter that influence.
In terms of presenting the public voice, by bringing the jury into China's court system, I think we will need to understand first that the jury's main duty is to give a verdict based on evidence.
What the jury can present in court is actually a public understanding of a case based on evidence, so that verdicts delivered by juries can be convincing to the public, but it is explicitly not an expression of public feeling. The jury must determine its verdict based on evidences and cannot be influenced by or succumb to the public pressure.