by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 4.0

THE SUPREME COURT upheld laws requiring that the same judge oversee trials above the third instance last month. This applies unless the judge retires or dies and is justified on the books because it is thought to be a means of preventing the waste of judicial resources.

The ruling is believed by advocates to have a strongly negative impact on the ability of Taiwan’s current 35 death row prisoners to overturn their sentences, seeing as it is thought that the same judge may make the same ruling. As such, this may mean that Taiwan’s current death row inmates would have no option but to seek a constitutional interpretation or similar means of overturning their case.

Such laws touch on a number of issues. In particular, Taiwan has long seen political contention about capital punishment. Taiwan is often criticized for its human rights record internationally regarding capital punishment, at a time when many countries are moving toward rehabilitative measures, rather than punitive ones, or legal measures that aim to use the fear of capital punishment as a way to deter crime.

Nevertheless, capital punishment is highly popular with the voter electorate, as attested to by public polling. As such, presidents are usually reluctant to phase out its use, and have been accused of using executions before elections to shore up their popularity rating. To this extent, the public often calls for the use of executions to deter crime after violent incidents and the president is attacked if they refuse to do so.

That being said, many of the death row cases currently on the books involve confessions that were extracted under questionable circumstances, such as through the use of torture. In other cases, crucial evidence is missing, or perhaps never existed. Many of these issues go back to the authoritarian era, in which police sometimes extracted confessions by torture from innocent individuals, so as to appear effective in catching culprits, or covering up cases of police wrongdoing.

Photo credit: Fred Hsu/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 4.0

One case in point is that of Chiou Ho-shun, Taiwan’s longest-serving death row inmate. Chiou has been on death row since 1989, which is now thirty-four years. Chiou was put on death row for two murders, one in 1987 and the other in 1988. The 1987 killing was of a female insurance agent named Ko-hung Yu-lan and the 1988 killing was of a nine-year-old boy named Lu Zheng. Chiou’s name was raised in connection to the killings after an arrest was made regarding Lu Zheng’s murder. Lu was kidnapped with the intention of obtaining a ransom from his parents, while Ko-hung was robbed and then killed.

However, Chiou has maintained his innocence for decades, stating that confessions were extracted from him under torture. While Chiou made 288 confessions, the details of these confessions are inconsistent. In 1994 and 2015, police officers admitted to having tortured Chiou. Despite this, Chiou remains on death row, seeing as he refused to plead guilty in 2011 even though his time served would have allowed him to walk away immediately.

Consequently, Taiwan’s judiciary has long been criticized by the public for issues regarding “dinosaur judges.” As Taiwan historically has had a judge-based legal system, rather than open juries composed of citizens, this has resulted in the criticisms that judges can become vested interests, who make rulings based on outmoded social values or to benefit politically-affiliated individuals. For example, with Taiwan having recently seen a wave of #MeToo cases, some of those cases involved judges who decided that the victim “should have known better.”

Efforts to transition to a jury-based system have been stymied, with there instead being a transition to a “lay judge” system involving citizens making judgments alongside professional judges. Nevertheless, critics of the system have suggested that this will, in fact, strengthen rather than reduce the power of judges.

Certainly, if there was hope that the transition to a lay judge or jury system would allow for new rulings on capital punishment cases, this does not seem likely to take place. It remains to be seen what legal avenues that Taiwan’s remaining death row inmates have, then.

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