China Frees a Man Who Spent 27 Years in Jail for Murder He Did Not Commit

Zhang Yuhuan's exoneration points to deeper issues within China's legal system, including its 99.9% conviction rate.
August 6, 2020, 12:18pm
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This file photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows the Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, south of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region. Credit: GREG BAKER / AFP

Zhang Yuhuan was finally able to reunite with his family on Tuesday, August 4, after serving a 27-year prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit—the longest such sentence in China for a wrongfully convicted person.

Zhang, 53, was wrongfully convicted of murdering two boys in 1993, according to the Chinese state tabloid Global Times. Zhang was the victims’ neighbor at the time. 

According to Global Times, Zhang was initially convicted of intentional homicide and sentenced to death. After two years, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. 

Zhang has maintained his innocence and claims he was tortured by police and forced into confessing to a crime he did not commit, according to the BBC

In March 2019, the Supreme People's Court in the eastern Jiangxi province reopened his case, with Zhang’s lawyer claiming that the evidence found at the scene was insufficient for a conviction, Global Times said. The prosecutor also noted inconsistencies between Zhang’s past confessions.

On Tuesday, the court announced that Zhang was “not guilty” based on a lack of sufficient evidence. In total, he had spent 9,778 days in prison before his homicide conviction was overturned. 

During Zhang’s time in prison, his brother wrote over 1,000 letters appealing for his release, South China Morning Post reported. Zhang’s children, both toddlers when he was arrested, are now married, the outlet noted. 

“I’ve seen a lot of brothers and sisters, a lot of relatives, but I don’t recognize many,” Zhang told local media, adding that he had difficulty recognizing his now 84-year-old mother. 

Communist Party newspaper China Daily said on Wednesday, August 5, that family members planned to apply for state compensation, though Zhang lamented that he has been deprived of the best years of his life. 

“It's hard for the compensation to make up for the damage of the wrongful conviction to me and my family,” he said. 

Prior to Zhang’s exoneration, the longest sentence overturned belonged to Liu Zhonglin, who spent 25 years in prison. Upon his release, Liu was awarded 4.6 million yuan ($670,000), according to South China Morning Post

Zhang’s story points to deeper issues within China’s criminal justice system.

China has one of the highest conviction rates in the world—in 2014, the country boasted a conviction rate of 99.9 percent. China’s criminal justice system has been plagued by accusations of unfair trials, ill-treatment of prisoners and the use of torture to obtain confessions.

But with several high-profile wrongful conviction cases given widespread media attention in the last decade—including cases where innocent men were wrongfully executed—China has passed a series of criminal justice reforms meant to address these issues. These reforms include a reduction in the number of crimes punishable by death and an end to the use of conviction rates as a performance benchmark for law enforcement. 

Still, experts say the factors contributing to the high volume of wrongful convictions in China are layered. 

Xu Jianhua, the head of the sociology department at the University of Macau, told VICE News that these factors include a top-down political pressure to solve murder cases, police being evaluated based on a high case clearance rate and crime management as an important tool the Chinese Communist Party to maintain its credibility. 

Lena Zhong and Mengliang Dai, scholars of criminal justice in Hong Kong and Macau, wrote in a 2018 paper titled “The Politics of Wrongful Convictions in China” that not only do technical errors—which include mistaken eyewitness accounts and forensic oversight—contribute to wrongful convictions, but underlying political factors—like the maintenance of social stability—also play a part.

Chinese University of Hong Kong criminal justice scholar Jiang Jue told VICE News that the crux of the issue lies in a “lack of judicial independence” among Chinese courts, and the fact that the judiciary branch is the weakest among China’s “iron triangle”—consisting of the Public Security Bureau, the Supreme People's Procuratorate and the Supreme People's Court. 

Jiang said that many wrongful convictions, including Zhang’s, follow a similar formula—a “guilty” verdict and a death penalty sentence followed by a two-year reprieve—before the court finds that confessions were obtained unlawfully or a conviction lacked sufficient evidence.

In recent years, criminal justice issues, including wrongful convictions and allegations of torture, are no longer taboo in China, Jiang said.

But he remains skeptical that discussions of these issues will lead to broader reforms, saying that “deeper-rooted problems, such as the police state placing 'stability maintenance' above everything else, coupled with the Communist Party's control of China’s judiciary system” would require the collective cooperation of the legal system, law enforcement, media and academics in order to change.

Still, Zhang’s case, which has received international media attention, is helping reignite these important discussions.

“This is certainly a good phenomenon, indicating an awareness of these problems and the fundamental issues of rights and justice,” Jiang said.

Photo credit: GREG BAKER / AFP​