Three men wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in China for the murder of a man and his girlfriend have filed compensation claims for about US$3 million each. Another innocent man who spent 11 years on the lam to avoid being tried for the murders, has filed a compensation claim for US$711,000.
The body of supermarket owner Jiang Zecai was found in a field near Leping, Jiangxi Province, China on May 24, 2000. Part of his dismembered girlfriend, Hao Qiang, was found in a shallow grave in a nearby wooded area. They had disappeared the night before. Leping is about 850 miles due south of China’s capital, Beijing.
The brutal murders remained “unsolved” until 2002 when a new head police official took over in Leping with orders to carry out a “crackdown” on crime.
Cheng Lihe was 25 when arrested in May 2002 on suspicion of being involved in the theft of mobile phones. During his intensive interrogation he was questioned about the murders of Zecai and Qiang. Lihe confessed on May 25, and over the next two weeks three of his acquaintances were also arrested. They also confessed to the murders after similar intensive interrogations.
Cheng Lihe, Huang Zhiqiang, Cheng Fagen, and Fang Chunping (aka Cheng Cheng Mao) were all charged with intentional homicide, rape, and robbery.
Their prosecution was based on their confessions, which they recanted as coerced by police torture. There was no physical, forensic or eyewitness evidence linking any of the four to the crime or even being in the area of the crime, and there was no evidence that Qiang had been raped other than the men’s confessions.
The four defendants claimed during their trial in the Intermediate People’s Court of Jingdezhen that their confessions were obtained after police beat them for long hours, hung them from the ceiling for several days and nights, forced them to stay on their knees until they dropped, and left them without food, water or sleep.
All four defendants presented an alibi defense of being elsewhere on the day of the crime.
On July 7, 2003 they were convicted of all charges, and sentenced to death.
In January 2004 the Jiangxi Higher People’s Court ruled the prosecution introduced insufficient evidence of their guilt, and sent their case back for a retrial.
After a retrial also based on their confessions, they were again found guilty and sentenced to death on November 18, 2004.
On May 31, 2006 the Jiangxi High Court of Final Appeal upheld their convictions. However, their sentences were changed to death with a two-year reprieve, after which their sentences were commuted to life in prison.
In February 2010 Chunping, Zhiqiang and Fagen — claiming they were innocent — went on a hunger strike to attract media attention to their case during the the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Geneva, Switzerland.
In October 2013 serial killer Fang Linzai confessed that he was the “real murderer” of the couple in 2002. He also said that none of the four men imprisoned for the crime were involved.
After Linzai confessed, DNA testing of three cigarette butts found at the crime scene matched Linzai’s DNA with a 99.99% degree of certainty. The DNA of the four convicted defendants was excluded from matching any of the cigarette butts.
Based on the new evidence the case of the four convicted defendants was reopened in June 2016. More than twenty Chinese lawyers were involved in advocating for their innocence.
Although the defendants knew about Linzai’s confession, they were not informed until October 2016 about the DNA tests that linked him to the crime scene.
Their third trial began on November 30, 2016 in the Jiangxi Higher People’s Court.
Zhiqiang, Chunping, Fagen and Lihe were acquitted on December 21, 2016. The Court ruled their guilt wasn’t proven because of contradictions in the prosecution’s evidence, and the authenticity and legality of the their confessions was uncertain. Although unstated, one of the contradictions the court referred to was likely that the credibility of Linzai’s confession was corroborated by the forensic testing of the cigarette butts that placed him at the crime scene.
The four were immediately released from custody after their acquittal.
The exoneration of the four also cleared a fifth defendant in the case who was never tried.
Wang Shenbing fled on June 1, 2002, days after Lihe was arrested. Knowing the fate of his four codefendants, Shenbing lived on the lam. He successfully avoided capture for more than 11 years (4,132 days) until his arrest in Nanchang on June 15, 2013.
In 2014 two of Shenbing’s nephews were convicted and sentenced to jail for harboring him, and his wife was held in custody for 30 days.
Shenbing was released on bail on June 19, 2014, after Linzai’s confession was corroborated by the forensic testing. (The presence of Shenbing’s DNA was excluded by the testing.)
On December 22, the day after his four codefendants were acquitted, the people’s Procuratorate of Jingdezhen announced the decision not to prosecute Shenbing. The murder, rape and robbery charges against him were dismissed.
At the time of the men’s exoneration three lawyers, a doctor, and a human rights activist were in custody for their actions on behalf of Zhiqiang, Chunping, Fagen and Lihe that offended government authorities. Those five were lawyer Li Heping; Dr. Xu Zhiyong; lawyer Li Chunfu; human rights activist “The Butcher” Wu Gan; and lawyer Jiang Tianyong.
Lihe, Chunping, and Fagan filed claims in June 2017 for compensation totaling approximately US$3 million each. They cited the unjustness of their physical confinement and mental anguish of being on death row for many years. Shenbing filed a compensation claim for about US$711,000, and demanded a public apology.* Zhiqiang is expected to file a separate compensation claim.
Although the exonerations of Zhiqiang, Chunping, Fagen and Lihe were not based on DNA testing of the crime scene cigarette butts, they are the first person’s in China known to have their convictions overturned after key new evidence — Linzai’s confession — was supported by new DNA evidence.
Fang Linzai has not been charged with the murders of Zecai and Qiang, even though the truthfulness of his confession is supported by the positive matching of his DNA with DNA recovered from the three crime scene cigarette butts.
* It was reported on June 8, 2017 that Lihe, Chunping, and Fagan filed compensation claims that respectively totaled 20,299,853.69 yuan, 20,320,340.23 yuan, and 20,256,360.27 yuan. Shenbing’s compensation claim totaled 4,799,180.85 yuan.