Percentage of overturned verdicts falls 'as review policy is working'
The percentage of death sentences being overturned by the Supreme People's Court has fallen sharply since 2007, due to tighter court procedures, Hu Yunteng, the top court's director of research, said.
There has been a steady decrease in the percentage over the last five years after the top judicial authority reinstated a review of all sentences carrying the death penalty.
Just 7 percent of cases ordering capital punishment were rejected last year, compared with 10 percent in 2010 and 14 percent in 2007, according to figures from the top court.
Hu declined to reveal how many people were executed annually, but said the total number was falling each year.
There had been a decrease last year in the number of people committing crimes punishable by death, such as murder, violent robbery, rape and kidnapping, he said.
"Courts have mastered uniform policy, including procedural and evidence norms, for cases in which the death penalty could be a possibility," Hu said.
Consequently, the number of death sentences overturned due, for example, to mistakes in gathering evidence were significantly lower, he said.
Sentences that were overturned were mostly due to procedural flaws, inappropriate sentences or crimes related to finance.
In February last year, the National People's Congress, the top legislature, removed 13 crimes that qualified for capital punishment, in the latest amendment to the Criminal Law. These crimes were non-violent or were primarily related to finance.
The revised amendment to another law, the Criminal Procedure Law, was passed by the top legislature in March and will take effect next year.
According to the amendment,the second trial of all cases that carried the death penalty should be heard at a court session.
On top of this, the Supreme People's Court will deliver the final ruling on whether to approve or reject death sentences passed by provincial-level courts.
Moreover, the top court will question defendants during the review session and listen to defense lawyers' opinions, subject to request.
The Supreme People's Procuratorate can also now put forward views for the top court.
"The revised draft embodies the policies of justice with mercy and makes sure a death penalty can only be imposed for the most heinous crimes," he said.
The Supreme People's Court on April 20 rejected the death sentence for former tycoon Wu Ying after questioning the defendant. Wu was convicted of illegally raising as much as 770 million yuan ($121 million) for investments.
While upholding the conviction and legitimacy of previous judicial proceedings, the court declined to approve the death sentence due to lack of evidence, and referred the case back to the high people's court in East China's Zhejiang province.
Wu was sentenced to death in 2009 by a local court in Jinhua, Zhejiang, for illegally raising funds. More than half of these funds were lost in failed investments.
Her case attracted widespread attention from the domestic and international media. Much of this focused on the difficulties facing private businesses trying to raise capital.
According to the top court, about 95 percent of death sentences approved in China are for serious crimes, such as homicide, robbery, serious injury, rape, drug trafficking and kidnapping.
Hu said the revised draft to the Criminal Procedure Law is the first to allow the top court to cross-examine defendants, as well as directly commute the death sentence.
Li Guifang, deputy director of the criminal defense department under the All China Lawyers Association, said the amendment has played an obvious role in fully protecting the human rights of suspects.
"During the review period, the top court can question the suspects and listen to their lawyers before making a final ruling," Li said.
While acknowledging the progress of the draft amendment, Li said he hoped that a possible step might see an appropriate application for death penalty cases.
"What's more, the top court should not only examine evidence, but issue regulations to better define serious crimes to ensure the death penalty can only be imposed for the most heinous crimes," he added.