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China convicts 99% of defendants in criminal trials. Reversing a conviction is hard

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

China has a conviction rate of more than 99%. That means some people may be wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. China's legal system has introduced reforms, but with limited effect. NPR's Emily Feng reports on one man's 20-year fight on China's death row. And a warning - this story includes descriptions of torture.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: This month, a man named Yuan Weidong had his fourth trial on charges of murder. Twice courts in China's Hebei Province ruled the evidence presented against him was heavily flawed, and twice lower circuit courts retried him, found him guilty, and sentenced him to the death penalty again. Yuan was arrested in 2002 in a case that relies almost entirely on forced confessions.

LI JIE: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: This is Yuan's wife, Li Jie. She recounts seeing her husband about a month after he'd been arrested on suspicion of two clusters of murders. His face, she said, was unrecognizable from being beaten, his body misshapen. And then it was her turn to be questioned.

LI: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: Bright yellow - that was the color Li says she remembers. It was the color of the jacket she wore the day she was detained.

LI: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: Then she was repeatedly electrocuted by five officers, she recounted. They also beat her, forcing her to testify against her husband. When they released her 12 days later, that yellow coat was covered in blood, she said.

LV BAOXIANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: Upon hearing that his wife was being tortured, Yuan readily confessed, says this man, the only lawyer from their home province who would take their case. His name is Lv Baoxiang.

LV: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: Lv specializes in wrongful conviction cases, all of them based on forced confessions using electrocution.

LV: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: Yuan was later cleared of the first set of murders in 2009. And on the second set, Lv says he discovered what he thought was a watertight alibi. Yuan had gone to pay an agricultural tax at the time of those murders. There were tax officials who witness Yuan paying and a time-stamped payment receipt. Yet Yuan remains on death row. The original judge presiding over Yuan's case has actually been promoted. The Provincial Justice Ministry did not respond when NPR asked them for comment about Yuan's case. Chi Yin, a scholar at New York University's U.S.-Asia Law Institute who studies wrongful convictions, says Yuan's case persists despite legal reform since, including...

CHI YIN: 2012, requiring video recording of interrogation from the beginning to the end.

FENG: Being able to exclude evidence illegally gathered, including from torture. China now says it has about eight to 900 retrials a year. In one notable case, a court paid out compensation for mental trauma to a man exonerated from his life sentence after the alleged victim walked back to his village alive and well. This is all encouraging says Chi Yin, but she says overturning previous wrongful convictions is still difficult.

CHI: Usually when there's lots of pressure to admit to a mistake, people's reactions is not to admit it.

FENG: And Yuan's case remains beset by legal difficulties. After more than 20 years on death row, Yuan is in poor health and suffering from stomach cancer. Police have lost most of the original evidence. Lv, his original lawyer, has retired, and his current lawyer joined last minute after their previous lawyer was disbarred for representing other human rights cases.

WANG XING: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: Wang Xing, the current lawyer, told NPR right after the trial this month that one of their key witnesses did show up, despite earlier state intimidation not to. So he's optimistic the court may clear Yuan. Now, the court is deliberating, and the Yuan family is hoping the fourth time is the charm.

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.