In China's latest move to control the use of the death penalty, the chief justice urged courts to exercise extreme caution when meting out the sentence, saying that every judgment must stand the test of time.
"In cases where the judge has legal leeway to decide whether to order death, he should always choose not to do so," said Xiao Yang, President of China's Supreme People's Court (SPC).
Xiao said a bullet to the back of head should be reserved for only an "extremely small number" of serious offenders.
If a convict surrenders to the police or helps them solve crimes, the judge should generally not pass the death sentence, the chief justice said.
Xiao made the call as the country ends a 13-year-old practice of allowing lower courts to mete out the sentence.
At the end of October, China's top legislature passed an amendment to the Organic Law on Courts, stipulating that all death penalties handed out by provincial courts must be reviewed and ratified by the SPC.
The SPC has expanded criminal tribunals and a death penalty review team to deal with the change of statutes.
A series of cases involving people wrongly convicted and executed for crimes they did not commit were recently exposed in the media.
"Judges should be very cautious, as if walking on thin ice, when it comes to the death penalty. They should ensure the facts and the evidence are all clear and the verdict is issued in accordance to law," said Xiao.
Further, the chief justice ruled out the possibility of abolishing the death penalty as a number of legal experts and human rights groups have urged.
"The conditions are not yet ripe for China to abolish the death penalty. It is still a necessary means of ensuring the safety of the state and protection of the people," he said.
(Xinhua News Agency November 9, 2006)