The Case of Zhao Xinjian


August 7, 1998.  June 16 on the Chinese calendar.  The moon was shining brightly that night.

2am in the morning.  Suddenly a plaintive wail broke the night calm: "Yanyan, what happened to you!  Please come!  There has been a murder ..."

The quiet little village -- Xingzhuang village, Huatuo town, Bozhou city, Anhui province -- was suddenly filled with cries and screams.

The Bozhou Jiaocheng police and the local police station sent people to the scene after they received the report.

The deceased was a 17-year-old girl named Xing . According to the grandmother Lu, she was awoken by some sound on the outside.  At first, she did not realize what had happened.  But since she could not get back to sleep, she went over to see if her granddaughter's mosquito netting was in place.  But she was shocked by what she saw: from the moonlight shining through the window, she saw that her granddaughter was stark naked.  She tried to turn on the light, but found that the electric wire was broken.  Lu's "brain went into shock with the dreaded feelng that something bad has happened."

When Lu determined that her granddaughter was not breathing, she began to cry for help.  By that time, Xing was already dead.

According to the notes and photographs taken at the scene, Xing died some time around 1am.  On her bed, there was a blue T-shirt with white stripes and a pair of plastic slippers that did not belong to the Xing family.  The police also recovered some hair tissues.

The coroner's report showed that Xing was strangled to death by other(s) by blunt force around the neck.  In addition, there were signs of necrophilia.  As a result, Xing's mother went insane later and left home.

Since there were many items at the scene which did not belonged to the Xing family, the police treated these items as important evidence and focused on following up on them.

The villagers quickly identified that the T-shirt at the scene as belonging to villager Zhao Xinjian.  So on the morning of the incident, Zhao Xinjian was taken to the North Town police station of the Jiaocheng public security bureau.

Zhao Xinjian said that he had no idea how his T-shirt ended up in the Xing house.  But on that night, apart from the incident at the Xing house, Zhao's home and other homes also had intrusions.  So his clothing and slippers may have been left behind by the thief who panicked after the murder.  So when the police asked for all the young men in the village to go to the police station for identification, he went too.  "By that time, I already knew that the T-shirt and slippers were mine.  There was also a towel from my home.  If I committed the crime, would I have gone there?  I would have run away not soon enough!"

Yet, the matter was not as simple as Zhao Xinjian imagined.

That evening, Zhao Xinjian was taken down to the criminal investigation squad.

The interrogation went on for three or four days.  Zhao Xinjian said, "I could not endure it anymore.  So I admitted that I did it."  Since Zhao Xinjian was not the perpetrator, he did not know about many of the details of the case.  So his confession contained obvious signs of fiction.  For example, Zhao Xinjian was asked how he returned home.  Zhao Xinjian said, "I climbed over the wall."  But in previous testimony, Zhao Xinjian said that he opened the door and walked in.  So why would Zhao Xinjian go through the extraordinary act of climbing the wall of his own home instead of just opening the door and walking in?

The problem was that Zhao Xinjian's actions must be consistent with the physical evidence at the scene.  On that night, apart from the Xing home, four other homes including Zhao Xinjian's were intruded upon.  On the wall of Zhao Xinjian's home, there were clear signs of someone climbing over the wall.  So only Zhao Xinjian climbing over the wall would be "consistent" with the objective facts.

Later on, the real murderer Li was arrested and he confessed that he climbed the wall to enter Zhao Xinjian's home where he took Zhao Xinjian's T-shirt, towel and slippers from the courtyard and then he left those objects at the crime scene in the Xing home.

An even more absurd piece of testimony is how Zhao Xinjian broke the electric light wire in the Xing home.

Zhao Xinjian said that in order to prevent the Xing girl from turning on the light after she woke up, he cut the electric light wire first.  "I found a glass bottle on the south side of the house and I found a brick to smash the bottle.  I was afraid that someone might hear the sound and so I did it while their donkey was stomping on the ground."  "I took a piece of broken glass and I went back into the house to severe the wire."  "I put the piece of broken glass back to the south side of the house with the other broken glass pieces."  After killing Xing, he "found a small plastic cloth in the chicken coop west of the courtyard and I used it to wrap up all of the broken glass pieces to take away."

An investigator who read this section of the testimony found it be to be implausible.  He said that Xing's grandfather was sleeping in the middle of the courtyard that night.  The sound of breaking glass should be loud.  Would Zhao Xinjian dare to smash a glass bottle while knowing that someone was in the courtyard?  To break the glass while the donkey stomped its feet -- could Zhao Xinjian time it so well?  After severing the wire with the broken glass piece, was it necessary to put the piece of broken glass back with the other pieces?

Zhao Xinjian said that he woke up to the fact that he could be sentenced to death for confessing to murder.  So he changed his mind.  "If I did not kill anyone, why should I admit to it?"  Therefore, at the first trial, Zhao Xinjian recanted his confession and denied everything.

But because Zhao Xinjian had admitted to killing, he had already fallen into the chasm of a nightmare.

There are many doubts in the case of Zhao Xinjian, but the Bozhou court sentenced Zhao Xinjian to death twice and a two-year-suspended death sentence once.

The Bozhou Middle Court described Zhao Xinjian in the verdict document: "The investigation (about the facts of the process by which Zhao Xinjian committed murder and necrophilia) showed that the factual evidence included the narrative by Zhao Xinjian ... the coroner's report ... the testimonies of the witnesses ... the analysis of the physical evidence ... these pieces of evidence were consistent with each other and reinforce each other ... therefore, they have been accepted ..."

In the confession of Zhao Xinjian, there is a conversation with Xing that illustrates the problem.

Zhao Xinjian said: I tapped her on the shoulder.  She woke up, sat up and asked, "Who?"  I said, "Me."  She said, "What are you doing here now?"  I said, "I want to have fun with you ..."  She said, "You leave now."  I said, "I'm not leaving."  She said, "If you don't leave, I'll call my mom."  She opened her mouth but before a sound could come out, I applied my right hand over her mouth ...

This "conversation scene" took place before Zhao Xinjian committed the "murder."  Later on, the investigators all thought that this scene was "humorous."  It was the middle of the night.  A young girl had an extended conversation with an intruder.  Xing's grandmother was sleeping in the east wing while her grandfather was sleeping in the courtyard.  This was impossible.

Zhao Xinjian's father Zhao Jianhua said that the verdict document listed witnesses and testimonies, but those testimonies had no bearing on Zhao Xinjian.  The witnesses were the villagers who found someone entering their homes.  "They said that someone came in that night, but the description of the person was vastly different from Zhao Xinjian.  So how can this be taken as evidence that Zhao Xinjian committed the murder?"

After much effort, the reporter found the people whom the court said proved that Zhao Xinjian committed the crime.

These witnesses were the villagers who saw the murderer that night.

According to villager Shi Chaomin, it was around midnight and he was sleeping with his wife and child in the courtyard.  A man entered the courtyard and the wife saw him.  As Shi and his wife were about to take action, the man turned around and fled.  "The man was solidly built, just over 20 years old, 1.6 meters tall, bare feet, bare back, wearing dark pants.  He did not seem to be a local resident."

Villager Xing Daban testified that she was sleeping with her mother on adjacent beds in the east side of the courtyard.  The bed moved suddenly, and she kicked twice and felt someone.  She cried out to her mother.  A man then ran away.  Xing Daban's description of the man was basically similar to that given by Shi Chaomin.

It was June 16 on the Chinese calendar and the moon was shining brightly.  The villagers could see the physical characteristics of that man quite clearly and they did not think that it was a local resident.  Zhao Xinjian is more than 1.7 meters tall and skinny.  The Zhao home is close to the homes of Xing Daban and Shi Chaomin and so they would have easily recognized Zhao Xinjian if it were him.

"Precisely for the reason that the villagers gave those physical descriptions, a man named Li from the neighboring Zhouzhuang village was summoned to the police station and had hair tissue samples taken.  But Li sneaked away while the supervisor was not paying attention."  A police person said that because there were so many items of Zhao Xinjian at the crime scene, they focused on breaking through Zhao Xinjian and neglected Li.  On August 18 that year, the public security bureau issued a report that showed that the hair tissue sample at the crime scene was Type O, which was consistent with Li but different from Zhao Xinjian's Type A.

These pieces of evidence should have been fully considered by the court, but the court did not pay attention to them.  Zhao Xinjian's representative lawyer Shi Xiaomin recalled that even though he raised all the points of doubt and pointed out that there was no direct proof that Zhao Xinjian committed the crime, the judges rejected that.

Although the Anhui province Supreme Court returned the case twice to the Bozhou Middle Court for retrials on the grounds that "the facts are unclear and the evidence is inadequate," the Bozhou court still sentenced Zhao Xinjian to death (suspended two years) in the end.

While the case of Zhao Xinjian was being investigated and judged, his family petitioned many times.  When Zhao Xinjian's death sentence was suspended for two years, the victim's family objected and also petitioned.  So the death of Xing became a famous petition case in Anhui province.  This case received the attention of the newly appointed Bozhou City public security bureau director Qi Shuzhi.  He personally took out all the files of the Zhao Xinjian case and read them himself.  He discovered that there were major problems with the case.  So he wanted to arrest Li for the case.

On August 20, 2004, the special manhunt squad arrested Li in a hay barn along the Yellow River Ancient Road in Shandong province.

After his arrest, Li confessed that he was responsible for the murder/necrophilia case of Xing and he denied that Zhao Xinjian was an accomplice.  So this was how the truth of the Xing case came to be known.

On September 14, 2004, Li explained the whole case.

At around 10pm on the evening of August 6, 1998, Li could not sleep and decided to go to Xing's home and molest her.  So he went from Zhouzhuang village to Xingzhuang village.  When he arrived at the eastern side of Nandahang, he left his slippers in a corner.  Since the door to the Xing home was closed, he first went to Xing Daban's home by climbing the wall.  Xing Daban woke up and kicked Li, who quickly fled over the wall.  After a while, Li saw that everything turned back to calm, so he went to Shi Chaomin's home.  He was ready to molest Shi Chaomin's daughter.  But as soon as he entered, Shi's wife saw him and Li quickly fled.  

When things were still calm, Li went barefoot to the east wall of the Xing home and scaled the wall.  He saw a snoring old man sleeping in the courtyard.  The house door was open so he sneaked in quietly.  He used his flashlight to look around and saw that there was an iron bed in the west room and Xing was sleeping on it with her feet towards the south and her head towards the north.  So Li went up to Xing's bed and made his move.  Xing woke up and wanted to pull the electric light cord.  But Li snapped it off.  To stop Xing from screaming, Li put his hands around her neck until she was motionless  Then he raped her.  Afterwards, Li left the Xing home via the wall.  To conceal his tracks, Li remembered that Zhao Xinjian had just been released from labor reform and so he decided to frame Zhao.  He entered the Zhao home by climbing the west wall and stole a T-shirt and a pair of plastic slippers.  He then retraced this steps to enter Xing's home.  He placed the T-shirt on the bed and the slippers underneath the bed.  Then he left the same way ...

The confession by Li matched what happened in Xingzhuang that night.  The sequence by which Li entered the four homes were consistent with what the villagers said.  Bozhou public security bureau director Qi Shuzhi said that the although Zhao Xinjian's clothing and slippers were found at the scene, these were just indirect evidence.  The root of the errors in the Zhao Xinjian case lies in that.  Without any direct evidence, the indirect evidence was used to proof the "criminality" of Zhao Xinjian.

He said that rectifying this case may be exposing the shortcomings of the system, "but this was just a mistake in law enforcement.  For the principal and his family, this was a disaster for an entire lifetime."

On January 6 this year, the Anhui Supreme Court issued a criminal judgment that rescinded the original verdict against Zhao Xinjian and sent the case back to the Bozhou Middle Court for a re-trial.  As of June, the Bozhou Middle Court had not ordered a re-trial.

The impatient Bozhou public security bureau requested that the Chaocheng public security bureau release Zhao Xinjian on the grounds that he did not commit any crime.  On June 23, the Bozhou Chaocheng public security bureau released Zhao Xinjian on the basis that he did not commit any crime.

On July 17, the Bozhou Middle Court allowed the Bozhou City procuratorate to withdraw its charge against defendant Zhao Xinjian for deliberate murder.

"After I was released, basically nobody cared about me.  There was no compensation.  Did I spend eight years in jail for nothing?" said Zhao Xinjian.  When I was found guilty, there was a verdict document.  But if I don't have an verdict document for my innocence, then am I innocent?  Who do I sue?  Where is the proof?  Who is going to restore my reputation after I was accused of "murder and necrophilia"?

Zhao Xinjian spent the best years of his youth (eight years between age 19 to age 27) inside the prison walls.  He suffered greatly both mentally and physically.  His family and relatives also suffered tremendously.  When the reporter visited Zhao Xinjian's home, he observed an impoverished and sparse place.  The low roof leaked when it rains because they could not afford to repair.  Zhao Xinjian sat on a stool in front of the door in a daze, looking helpless and sad.

Concerning the Zhao Xinjian case, a Bozhou Middle Court leader said: "At the time when the case being processed, I criticized the chief judge for the flaws.  The chief judge was in fact in tears in the face of the criticisms."

Concerning the compensation for Zhao Xinjian, they said that they will do so in accordance with the national compensation law.  "But it is not acceptable to demand the sky."  

An investigator said something that might point out the root of this tragedy: "Our leaders were pressing for closure and the victim's family was pressing for punishment.  We were pressured both ways.  We could not do anything except that we wanted to close the case quickly.  Faced with the pressure from the victim's family, the law enforcement agency cannot release the initial suspects even if there is insufficient proof.  Yet, with the re-trials, the families of the principals come here every two to three days to cause trouble.  What can you do?  You can only lean over to please whichever side is screaming louder."

The judging of the case of the Zhao Xinjian case went on for several years, with multiple trials and re-trials.  In the end, the mistake still occurred.  So how did the three gateways of the public security bureau, the procuratorate and the court fail?

Whenever a case of injustice is discussed, people automatically think first about whether a forced confession was involved.  Like similar cases, the case of Zhao Xinjian did not miss out on the standard formula of forced confession.  When a person who was not a murderer admitted that he killed, the answer is obvious as to what happened.

A veteran police officer told the reporter that although the public security organization have many systematic restraints against forced confessions, the investigators act in a fairly independent manner and so it is hard in practice to restrain them.

In the case of Zhao Xinjian, it is not difficult to find the traces of this.  At the crime scene, Zhao Xinjian's T-shirt, slippers and towel were found.  Zhao Xinjian could not explain why his stuff was at the scene.  So the investigators cannot exclude the possibility that Zhao Xinjian was guilty.  Based upon habitual thinking, it is easy to slide into "an assumption of guilty."

According to a militia police officer who joined the investigation later on, it is usual for a suspect to leave one thing at the scene.  Two items might not be too many.  But three or four items at the scene is quite unusual.  Actually, according to the indictment against the real murderer Li, he took stole the items from Zhao Xinjian to leave at the scene in order to divert the attention of the police.  "The police investigators let their assumption of guilt misdirect them, and they were also under the pressure to solve the case quickly."

According to famous criminal law expert Tang Dasen, the blind pursuit of a high rate of solving crimes becomes a possible choice for certain police investigators.  He believes that the choice between efficiency and justice directly affects the manner in which police investigators act.  An important reason why forced confessions exist is that the punishment against the police for using force to extract confessions is mild.  There are now regulations about how civil and administrative complaints can be filed in such cases.  "Forced confessions that result in wrongful convictions occur frequently, so it is time that criminal prosecution should be available soon."

Anhui province Academy of Social Sciences Legal Research Institute deputy director Li Xiaoqun thinks that it is best to stop forced confessions from the root source.  That would protect human rights, justice and fairness, and reduce the cost of litigation.  This means establishing a system to eliminate illegally collected evidence.  Although the criminal law clearly disallows illegally collected evidence, it is hard to make that happen during the actual judicial process.

In the Zhao Xinjian case, the Bozhou People's Procuratorate had one opportunity to prevent the case from happening.  But this last opportunity was missed.

On September 17, 1998, the Bozhou public security bureau requested an order from the Bozhou City Procuratorate to arrest Zhao Xinjian.  On the grounds that the facts were unclear and the evidence was inadequate, the Bozhou City Procuratorate denied the request for arrest.  Zhao Xinjian was released from detention and placed under supervision at home.

"Yet the victim's family continued to petition until the procuratorate rescinded its original decision.  The arrest of Zhao Xinjian was then approved," said an informed source.  "This advanced the wrongful conviction."

Anhui Normal University Law School deputy director Cheng Naisheng said that this was an irrational response to public opinion.  The reality was that this was a desire to have good political accomplishments.  "When the people petition, you ignore the facts, you arrest someone and you convict them.  Everything is calm.  Your boss does not criticize you.  But have you considered the lives of the innocent people?"

The most regrettable part of the case of Zhao Xinjian was that the final gateway of the court failed.

During the four years of court hearings of the case of Zhao Xinjian, he was sentenced twice to death but the Anhui province Supreme Court sent the case back for retrials on the grounds that the facts were unclear and the evidence was inadequate.  But the Bozhou court did not seriously scrutinize the case.  In the end, the court said that "the defendant Zhao Xinjian committed a particularly serious crime and must be punished severely.  According to the details and circumstances of the case, he is sentenced to death but not to be carried out immediately."  Zhao Xinjian was sentenced to death with a two-year suspension.

A judge told the reporter that the judgment was made in consideration for the public security bureau and the procuratorate, because sending the case back would mean that it had been a wrongful case.  So it was the Bozhou Middle Court who opened the gate, so how can we stop wrongful cases from occurring?