Recently a series of high-profile wrongful convictions in China have undermined public confidence with the criminal justice system and the official stress on ‘ruling the country by law’. This article aims to further the scholarship on wrongful convictions in China by investigating the characteristics of 141 erroneous convictions (206 defendants) in which the defendants are declared factually innocent by a court. These cases allow an examination of the direct contributing factors (such as mistaken eyewitness identification and forensic errors) and underlying political factors (such as the form of political–legal work as led by the Party/State and the political importance in maintaining social stability) for wrongful conviction in China. The analysis enables us to develop more effective countermeasures against wrongful conviction in the Chinese context.
Penal practices diverge across societies and over time or place. Principles of penal punishment rest on impartial and effective investigation of crime and culpability. This article explores how juridical practice in China in the reform period encounters and addresses the problem of mistaken or wrongful conviction. Anglo-American and Chinese juridical practices differ in their philosophical/moral principles in such cases and the value attached to the consequences of judicial error. In English and American criminal laws, the value preference is well captured by Blackstone’s ratio that ‘it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer’. In other words, false conviction of the innocent is a greater constitutional wrong than failure to convict the guilty. In Chinese criminal justice, for a long period the value preference was captured by the saying that ‘it is better to wrong the innocent than miss the guilty’ or even ‘it is better to kill a thousand innocent persons wrongly than miss one guilty person’. There have been calls to ‘neither wrong the innocent nor miss the guilty’ in recent years when a series of high-profile wrongful conviction cases was exposed. Although Mr. Shen Deyong, Executive Vice-President of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), implored judges nationwide to ‘miss rather than wrong’ (宁可错放，也不可错判), the legal culture is not likely to change substantially in the foreseeable future, particularly given the political imperative of maintaining social stability in the era of Xi Jinping.
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