Update: On Jan. 13, 2020, the Shandong High People’s Court declared Zhang Zhichao innocent of “rape resulting in murder.” China’s Supreme Court had ordered Zhang’s case retried in 2017, nearly 12 years after his initial conviction, citing unclear facts and contradictory evidence.
China’s Supreme People’s Court has started reinvestigating a rape case that happened 12 years ago due to suspicions of insufficient evidence and of whether the suspect, then 16 years old, was forced to confess.
Zhang Zhichao was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for the rape and death of Feng Ting, a girl in his grade at Linmu Second High School in eastern China’s Shandong province. Wang Guangchao, another student, was charged with helping Zhang conceal the girl’s death and sentenced to three years in prison plus three years of probation.
Li Xun, Zhang’s attorney, told Sixth Tone that the supreme court has officially filed the case for investigation after holding a final online hearing with the lawyers involved on Tuesday. This was the third such hearing since April of last year.
Feng went missing in 2005 and was found one month later in a locked bathroom. A woven bag covered only her upper body. One of Zhang’s classmates testified that Zhang was at the door of the bathroom at the alleged time of the murder.
Though Feng died after being raped, Zhang was not convicted of the crime of murder. Instead, Chinese law has a provision for more serious punishments for rape, including life imprisonment, when it results in death.
According to Li, however, the evidence used to convict Zhang is not conclusive. Testimonies from other classmates who said Zhang was attending a running exercise at the time on the school’s playground were not included in the court case. A campus store, where Zhang allegedly bought the lock used to lock the bathroom door, was not open at the time when he was supposed to have bought it. In addition, the police have not determined where the woven bag found on the scene came from, Li said. Moreover, Feng’s hymen was found to still be intact.
“It is not possible for him to have committed the crime,” said Li.
According to court documents, Zhang confessed to raping Feng and did not immediately appeal his sentence. “He was under great psychological pressure and was too afraid to tell the truth, as he was still a teenager,” said Li.
Five years after his conviction, at the age of 21, Zhang told his parents that he had not committed the crime. He said he had pleaded guilty and fabricated the detailed confession under threat of violence.
The Shandong High People’s Court dismissed Zhang’s first appeal in 2012, with a notice saying there was no evidence of torture, and that Zhang’s litigious rights had been guaranteed because two teachers were present during his interrogation. However, China Youth Daily reported that the teachers had been told to sign the interrogation records only afterward, and had not actually been present.
Zhang also appealed to the procuratorate, the branch of government that investigates and prosecutes criminal cases. They, too, turned down his request.
When media reported on the case in 2015, the Shandong Provincial People’s Procuratorate filed the case for review the same year, but the investigation was delayed multiple times, according to China Youth Daily.
While an increasing number of cases are being reinvestigated on the suspicion of wrongful conviction, the correction procedure is often long and taxing. In March, a provincial procuratorate advised that a 16-year-old case in which two men were convicted of robbery and murder be reopened. The men had been appealing since 2004.
Zhang’s lawyer, Li, is currently waiting for the result of the supreme court’s investigation. He said he does not know when the case will be reopened in earnest.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A view of the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, Aug. 27, 2014. Li Fei/VCG)