Courts at all levels have been ordered to set tougher procedural standards for trials involving the death penalty -- a step legal experts have hailed as a sign that China will reduce its use of capital punishment.
"Every procedure of the first trial, second trial and retrial, as well as the reviewing of the death penalty, must be rigidly executed," Cao Jianming, vice president of the Supreme People's Court (SPC), said at a recent seminar for senior justice officials in Dalian in northeastern Liaoning Province.
Courts are now also being urged to examine evidence more carefully to avoid incorrect death sentences, he said.
"Lessons should be learnt from previous trials to perfect the system in the area of capital punishment," he said.
"Cao's speech indicates that the nation plans to decrease the number of capital punishment sentences in order to follow the policy to 'kill fewer, kill carefully'," commented Chen Xingliang, a law professor at Peking University.
Recent examples such as the case of She Xianglin, who was wrongly convicted and served 11 years in prison for murder, and the unjust murder case of Nie Shubin have widened debate over the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in China.
But there also exist some vague articles in the nation's Criminal Code that have led to ambiguous standards among the lower courts in doling out the death penalty, Chen said.
For example, the code stipulates that the death penalty is to be imposed for the most serious crimes, "but there is no detailed regulation on how serious 'the most serious' has to be," he said.
China's current laws dictate that all death penalty rulings given by local intermediate people's courts or above should be submitted to the SPC for approval, but in cases involving violent crimes such as murder, rape and robbery, provincial higher courts are empowered to approve executions.
China uses the death penalty for a wide range of crimes, from murder to economic crimes such as corruption. Criminals who are not required by law to be executed immediately would receive a two-year probation before execution is carried out.
Believing the death penalty should be abolished in the long run, Chen suggested that the court increase long-term sentences instead of using the death penalty.
"When the long-term imprisonment system is set up, judges will be less likely to resort to capital punishment," Vice Minister of Justice Zhang Jun said at another seminar earlier this year.
A survey by the ministry last year found that most serious criminals who were sentenced to life imprisonment actually stayed in prison only for 15 years or so before being released.
"The focus of reforming the punishment system is not to abolish the death penalty," he said, "but to set up more long-term prison sentences -- for example, 20- or 30-year sentences -- to reduce the use of the death penalty."
(China Daily July 23, 2005)