Facing the Firing Squad

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A seven-year-old girl awakes one morning at her home in the Taipei suburb of Hsichih and finds blood stains outside the door of her parents' locked bedroom. Inside, Wu Ming-han and Yeh Ying-lan are dead, apparently stabbed with a knife from their own kitchen. Police investigate, and four men are eventually convicted of the murders. One is executed; three await the firing squad.But eight-and-a-half years after the brutal double murder, the case is far from closed. The fate of the three remaining convicts has sparked an emotional debate about law in Taiwan, involving the courts, legislators, human rights groups and even President Lee Teng-hui, who is being asked to give amnesty to the three convicted murderers. Whatever he decides, many people have concluded that, in Taiwan, it's far too easy to end up on death row.

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Five months after the Wus were murdered in March 1991, police tracked down a suspect using bloody fingerprints found at the crime scene. They arrested Wang Wen-hsiao, a 22-year-old marine, who confessed that he had burgled the family's home to pay off $1,100 in videogame gambling debts. According to his statement, Wang killed the couple after they discovered him in the act.

But police believed more than one weapon was used, and they interrogated Wang for three days more. He ultimately said three teenagers had also been involved: Su Chien-ho, Liu Ping-lang and Chuang Lin-hsun. They were rounded up and questioned--later they claimed to have been beaten--and finally confessed to helping murder the couple and gang-raping Mrs. Wu. At the trial, police produced coins taken from the boys' pockets, alleging they came from the robbery. Witnesses willing to testify that the teens were elsewhere on the night of the murder were not allowed to take the stand. All three were sentenced to death in 1992. Wang, the original convict, had been executed several months earlier.

Su, Liu and Chuang are now collectively known as the Hsichih Three, and their cause has spurred petitions, newspaper editorials and protest rallies in their support. I have been an attorney, and I know how to read a person's face, says Tsai Ming-hsien, who has sponsored a bill in the Legislative Yuan to release the men. These three young kids did nothing wrong. Says Brian Kennedy, a board member of Amnesty International Taiwan and a former public defender in California: It was the worst example of judicial incompetence I have ever seen.

The main concerns are whether the confessions were forced from the Hsichih Three (and, earlier, from Wang) and whether the courts were too hasty in finding them guilty. But the case has a uniquely Taiwanese angle. The three were convicted not on a simple murder charge but for violating a statute called The Act for the Control and Punishment of Banditry. Imposed after the Nationalists regained Taiwan from the Japanese in 1945, the law was imported from the Chinese mainland, where the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) used it to keep control while they fought with Japanese troops. It proscribes murder, arson and rape, but also such activities as organizing groups in the mountains or marshes in opposition to government authority. The act provides for a mandatory death penalty. Theoretically, someone who merely trespasses on a military base can be charged and, if found guilty, sentenced to death. It isn't a dormant statute: 257 people have been executed since the 1940s for Banditry Act violations. Eight were killed in the past month alone.

In today's democratic Taiwan, such a blunt approach to justice seems outdated to many. Legislator Hsieh Chi-ta has drafted a bill, soon to be introduced in the Legislative Yuan, that would repeal the Banditry Act. Conservative lawmakers, she fears, may not want to concede that the original law was heavy-handed or misused. It will be extremely hard to admit this kind of major mistake, she says, but we have to do it. Several laws giving basic legal protection to people under arrest were passed earlier this year.

The Hsichih Three have become national symbols of all these issues, and politicians from both the KMT and the opposition have appealed to President Lee to show clemency. In addition, the Control Yuan, the top watchdog agency for the government, has reprimanded the Justice Ministry and the police for their handling of the case, and the Prosecutor General's office has thrice applied for the convictions to be reviewed. The defendants themselves have appealed twice, losing in both the High Court and the Supreme Court.

The courts are united and holding firm, insisting justice has been done. President Lee could sign a pardon before he leaves office next May, but only at the risk of embarrassing the judiciary. The three condemned men, meanwhile, have not requested a pardon. That assumes guilt, they say, and they want their innocence recognized. For them, it's a matter of life or death. For their countrymen, the issue is only slightly less serious: whether justice in Taiwan will be distributed fairly--or with the heavy-handedness of yore.

Reported by Michael Kitchen/Taipei