China has had many high-profile and well-publicized wrongful convictions and exonerations in the past decade, and this was the first conference in China to focus on the problem of wrongful conviction. The conference was held August 6-8, 2012 in Changchun, China, which is in the north near North Korea and Russia. The conference was packed with interesting speakers (program with speakers and topics here), and I can attest (as can anyone else who was present) that the more than 150 Chinese scholars, judges (including Supreme Court Justices), defense lawyers and high-level prosecutors were extremely concerned about the problem and keen on getting the Chinese system to start working on reforms to minimize it. China recently passed reforms requiring videotaped interrogation in many cases, and is working diligently to update the criminal procedure rules and to get other innocence reforms in place.
The thing that many of us from the “West” commented to each other throughout the conference was how open the judges and prosecutors were to the problem, and how they seemed to be on the same page with the scholars interested in reform. You rarely see that kind of cooperation in the U.S. or, as Innocence Network UK founder Michael Naughton noted, in the UK. [Note: Naughton is on the far right of the back row in the above picture]
Some of the causes of wrongful conviction that the Chinese speakers frequently noted were false confessions due to intense interrogation methods, political interference in the cases from the local communist party officials who sometimes take an interest high-profile cases and want them to come out a certain way, tunnel vision of police and prosecutors, and the evaluation and promotion process for judges and prosecutors that rewards high conviction rates. Restructuring the system that so the judiciary is totally independent (from both other branches of government and the Communist Party) seemed to be most frequently cited as the next reform to tackle. Discussion was open, frank, and filled with a spirit that reform is the air in China, and that anything is possible (eventually).
One interesting point that was discussed was the Chinese legal system’s distrust of confessions (due in part to the history of torture to obtain them), and the growth of the Mutual Proof Rule, which requires a judge to determine that the objective facts of the case match the suspect’s confession before considering the confession as probative evidence of guilt. Cases were discussed in which the Mutual Proof Rule resulted in confessions being disregarded because the details varied too far from the undisputed facts.
Another interesting point that was discussed was how the judiciary in the Hunan Province, after a troubling exoneration a few years ago, declared May 9th each year to be set aside for the local judicial system to reflect on wrongful convictions and discuss reforms. Each year on May 9th the province judicial council issues a report on wrongful convictions and what progress the province has been made to remedy the problem in the past year.
My favorite moment of the conference was when an American professor congratulated the Chinese reformers on how far they have come in recent years, but noted that only 30% of defendants in China are entitled to counsel during trial. One of the Chinese scholars retorted: ”America put the right to counsel in the Bill of Rights in the 1790s and didn’t make it a universal reality until the 1960s. It took you almost 200 years. We have only had serious reform in China for 1o or 20 years, so we’re on track to beat America by more than 150 years. And we’re gonna do it!!”
If this conference is any indication of the Chinese resolve for reform, then this statement may very well end up being true.