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Death Penalty Needs Higher Review, Caution

At an academic meeting recently, Justice Huang Songyou, vice-president of the Supreme People's Court, proposed a way that may relieve the stress placed on judges and avoid wrongful executions - return reviews of death sentences to the Supreme Court.

Huang's proposal has rekindled contemplation of the nation's death penalty system as well as criminal law values.

China's criminal procedural law already requires the Supreme Court to check every death sentence exclusively to help avoid wrongful executions taking place.

Considering the limited number of presiding judges within the Supreme Court, however, the legislature issued several codes in the 1980s allowing higher courts in provinces, autonomous regions or municipalities to review death sentences in some cases concerning offences of violence, such as homicide and arson.

This change produces something of a paradox. The criminal procedure authorizes intermediate courts to hear cases that could lead to imposition of the death penalty, and higher courts to hear a retrial following an appeal, which is then conclusive. Therefore, asking higher courts to check death sentences decided by themselves does not seem to make much sense.

As a matter of fact, Huang's proposal is backed almost unanimously among legal professionals. By excluding any likely randomness in measuring up capital punishment criteria by individual provinces and making the pre-execution review a real chance for capital crime suspects, the Supreme Court's monopoly of death sentence review tallies with a fundamental criminal law value: respect life and be "extremely cautious" in using capital punishment.

The focus is now on the technical front: Can the Supreme Court do the job? How much financial and personnel support will it receive? Will it set up circuit tribunals nationwide to handle this extremely important task?

It's now up to the Supreme Court and the legislature to work out an answer to stop sacrificing the values of criminal law for expedience.

(China Daily November 9, 2004)

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