- False Convictions: A Systemic Concern in China and the World
Wrongful conviction has become an important sociopolitical issue in many countries.1 It is now synonymous with factual innocence, or a false conviction for a crime committed by another or for a “crime” that in fact never occurred. Another type of wrongful conviction occurs when the state obtains a conviction, even against a factually guilty defendant, by means of flawed or corrupted procedures. Errors of impunity—excessive leniency to the guilty or false acquittals—are also miscarriages of justice.2
The emergence of false conviction as a sociopolitical issue transcends judicial systems’ age-old concerns about convicting the innocent. Contemporary concern with false convictions is produced by innocence consciousness— “the idea that innocent people are convicted in sufficiently large numbers as a result of systemic justice system problems to require efforts to exonerate them, and to advance structural reforms to reduce such errors in the first place.”3 The traditional judicial dread of false convictions leads to narrow and legalistic corrective measures. Innocence consciousness, however, generates a complex set of systemic reforms aimed at improving the accuracy of police, forensic examiners, [End Page 153] and prosecutors’ decisions, expanding defense attorney capacity, and improving legal procedures. Innocence reform transcends the modification of legal rules and requires changes in legislation, administrative rules, agency practices, and, ultimately, the justice system’s culture.
Innocence consciousness coincides with the rise of innocence movements,4 which have cropped up in many countries, including China.5 Innocence movements take different forms, reflecting a country’s political organization and culture. The US innocence movement is primarily a civil society phenomenon, organized by law-school-based or private innocence projects or organizations, which has gained a level of government support and has generated many reforms.6 In England and Wales the innocence movement has older roots and focuses mainly on appellate court procedural reform, including the creation of an official but quasi-independent agency to funnel worthy cases to the Court of Appeals.7 Civil society activity in England has not been as robust as in the United States. In China an innocence movement has developed within the governing party-state.8 China, like England, has responded to public opinion, indeed, public outrage about false convictions, and China’s party-state has responded to a real and perceived problem that calls into question the justice system’s efficacy and legitimacy.9
He Jiahong, Renmin University of China (RUC) professor of law and author of Back From the Dead: Wrongful Convictions and Criminal Justice in China (BFTD), specializes in criminal evidence and has played a central role in China’s innocence movement. Professor He received a law degree from RUC in the early 1980s (just as China exponentially expanded legal education as part of its unprecedented commercial growth) and a doctor of law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago.10 His dissertation compared prosecution in the United States and China, and he absorbed America’s lawyer culture while observing the police in action (BFTD, p. xxi).11 At RUC he expanded his expert knowledge of Chinese criminal law doctrines and practices. To boot, he is a popular novelist who explains the workings of China’s criminal justice system through his lawyer-sleuth alter ego, Hong Jun (BFTD, p. xxii; 225 n.6).12 In addition to his academic service, He Jiahong served for two years as a deputy director of a division of China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate dedicated to improving prosecutorial standards and adherence to human rights standards throughout China (BFTD, pp. 47, 215, n. 8). He was tapped by the central government to lead several studies of wrongful convictions and has since 2000 been a voice for [End Page 154] progressive change to China’s criminal justice system.13 He’s background and activism (for example, in establishing a number of nationwide and international conferences about wrongful convictions and structural change) means that BFTD is more than a scholar’s analysis. It reflects a set of positions and criticism...