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    19 Years on Death Row

    Zhang Hong faced a firing squad for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

    At the execution ground 18 years ago, the bullet meant for Zhang Hong never came.

    First arrested in 1997, Zhang, now 57, from central China’s Henan province, was accused of murdering a woman who refused to marry him. It took just a few months for the local court to decide he was guilty. But the carpenter’s sentence, death by firing squad, was never carried out because he continued to scream his innocence until what he thought would be his last breath.

    One appeal, one retrial, and a suspended death sentence later, Zhang is still behind bars today, protesting his innocence. He has never confessed and says he never will.


    On March 3, 1992, a female worker named Chen Yi was strangled to death in her dormitory at Taiyuan Iron & Steel, a state-owned steel producer, in Shanxi province, northern China. Five years later, on the evening of Feb. 5, just a couple of days before Chinese New Year, Zhang was arrested 400 kilometers away, in his hometown of Dazhanggai in Henan.

    On Feb. 13, 1997, local newspaper Taiyuan Evening News carried the headline “Five Police Officers Arrest Absconding Criminal in Henan on New Year’s Day.” The article said a group of five police officers had arrested the “notoriously evasive” Zhang and escorted him back to Taiyuan. The officers had staked out Zhang’s village, waiting for him to return home to celebrate the new year.

    Eight months later, the city’s court accused Zhang of a crime of passion. Public prosecutors accused the migrant worker of having met Chen Yi while working away from home in 1988, claiming he had planned to marry her — until Chen and her family opposed the idea. Zhang was said to have sought out the woman on multiple occasions in an attempt to change her mind. Four years later, he allegedly snuck into Chen’s accommodation and strangled her to death with a red belt before fleeing the scene.

    When attorney Zhu Mingyong met his client last month at Fenyang Prison in northern China, he told Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper he was astonished by the clothes Zhang wore. In 30-degree heat, Zhang was wearing a thick cotton jacket. He said he was afraid of catching a cold.

    Zhang said that his health had deteriorated after the called-off execution. He told his lawyer that he had lost the ability to walk, instead crawling around the prison for years before eventually regaining enough strength to walk with the help of a cane.

    Zhang has never missed an opportunity to protest his innocence. When he was given the chance to have this death sentence commuted to long-term imprisonment on the condition that he confess to his crimes, he refused.

    In 2006, when provincial officials came to inspect the prison, Zhang stood at the window shouting about his case. Many people assumed he was mentally ill. A fellow prisoner reported during a later re-examination of Zhang’s case that the inmate was constantly writing up materials to appeal his case.

    Another inmate, Zhao Chuansheng, said that after Zhang came to Fenyang, he was assigned to the same work team as him. “Since coming here, Zhang has never once confessed to his crime,” Zhao said. “He doesn’t allow the government to commute his sentence, doesn’t take part in any productive labor, and doesn’t join in with any of our classes or activities.”

    One of Fenyang’s in-house prosecutors told The Paper that he and his colleagues had closely scrutinized Zhang and his case. “It’s very rare to see inmates like Zhang Hong, who have kept protesting their innocence for more than a decade, who don’t admit they’re guilty, and who are unwilling to accept a commuted sentence.”

    Many of Zhang’s neighbors told The Paper that on March 3, 1992 — the day the murder happened — the supposed murderer was at home, not in Taiyuan City. People clearly remember Zhang spending the first month of the Chinese New Year repairing the leaky roof of his family’s house — a task for which they enlisted the help of a dozen or so fellow villagers.

    They say he did not leave the village until after March 6, or the second day of the second lunar month, known traditionally as “the day the dragon rears its head.”

    “We have a custom here which dictates that people can’t leave the village until after that day,” said one of the villagers, Zhang Youguo (not a direct relative). “And they were repairing the roof the whole time. I was there helping out as well. I can confirm that he was at home that day.”

    The leaky roof isn’t the only reason Zhang’s fellow villagers remember the events of 1992 so clearly. Another villager, who did not wish to reveal his name, said it just so happened that a new party cadre was sent to Dazhanggai that year. To welcome him, two theatrical troupes visited the village and put on performances, something that had never happened before. To this day, many relish the memories of that time.

    During Zhang’s initial trial, his defense lawyer at the time doubted the reliability of the facts of the case. And when Zhang met with one of his current lawyers, Zhu, he said the same: that he had never met the victim, Chen Yi, and that when the murder happened he was at home in Henan province, fixing the roof.

    However, these pleas were never accepted by the court.

    According to Zhang’s lawyers, the facts of the case are riddled with inconsistencies.

    Court records state the murder occurred at 9 a.m. on March 3, 1992. But in the article that appeared in the Taiyuan Evening News, the tragedy is reported to have happened on the evening of March 25, 1993.

    Attorney Zhao Aimin, who has represented Zhang since 2014, believes the anomalous times are more than “a mere slip of the pen,” adding that no single piece of objective evidence proves Zhang killed the victim.

    The case against Zhang is mainly comprised of oral statements and written testimonies. These include materials submitted by Chen’s father; the documents of four people, including Zhang’s brother Zhang He, who testified to the police; written records of the crime scene and the coroner’s report, both from of the Taiyuan municipal police; and the defendant’s own confession, which he has since said he was forced to make.

    However, it’s not clear what evidence led to Zhang’s conviction, as the official verdict documents from his initial trial make almost no mention of the above testimonies.

    In 1997, immediately after his first conviction, Zhang appealed the sentence. Less than a month later, the People’s High Court of Shanxi ruled to uphold the original sentence.

    The court documents for Zhang’s appeal cited no defense lawyer, suggesting he had no formal legal representation during the appeal process. Zhao believes that this represents a serious breach of judicial procedure. “The fact that there was no defense lawyer present indicates there is a strong possibility that the case was tried in writing only, by a panel of judges,” said the attorney.

    “Also, it only took 16 days. This shows that practically no further investigation into the case was done for the appeal trial,” Zhao said.

    In 2001, three years after Zhang was nearly executed, the same high court that handled Zhang’s appeal in 1998 reached a new verdict in a retrial: It determined that “out of consideration for the specific nature of the case,” Zhang was to be granted a two-year reprieve — a suspended death sentence.

    The high court arrived at the new verdict despite saying that “the basic facts and evidence surrounding the case are clear and valid,” and despite not introducing any new evidence. As with the appeal, no defense lawyer was listed in the retrial verdict documents, either.

    Suspended death sentences in China are usually commuted to life imprisonment after two years. However, this happens on the condition that the prisoner admits to their crimes. But in the 19 years Zhang has spent behind bars, he has never confessed.

    Zhao Aimin told The Paper that many doubts remain about Zhang’s murder case, and that the “specific nature of the case” which the retrial verdict deemed it necessary to consider has always been a riddle to him.

    Except for the verdict, the court documents of Zhang’s first trial have possibly all been lost, including the testimonies given at the time, further limiting what can currently be understood about the court’s decisions nearly 20 years ago.

    After the retrial verdict was given by Shanxi’s high court in 2001, Zhang took his case to the provincial procuratorate, the public prosecutor.

    It wasn’t until 2012 that the procuratorate opened a fresh investigation into Zhang’s case, interrogating him several times in prison and visiting his hometown in Henan.

    On April 1, 2014, they issued a document that once more established the case details. It explained that Zhang believed his sentencing to be baseless and a miscarriage of justice, and that he had been forced to confess.

    The document went on to say that the evidence used in the original verdict was insufficient and unreliable, and that the facts do not clearly indicate that Zhang killed Chen. “In accordance with the law, this court has recommended to the High People’s Court of Shanxi province that a retrial be held,” it said.

    However, in the two years since, Zhang never received a reply from the court.

    On June 20, 2016, the press officer of the high court told The Paper that Zhang’s case was still progressing in accordance with procedure.

    When one of Zhang’s lawyers, Zhu Mingyong, looked up his client’s case in the court enquiry system, the status was still listed as “Appeal Under Investigation.”

    Several years after Zhang Hong’s arrest, his parents passed away. “After my brother was sentenced to death,” said Zhang He, “our parents never talked about him again, right up until they died.” 

    “But I’ve always believed that my brother was wrongly convicted,” he added. “When the murder happened, he was at home mending the roof. Lots of people can verify this.”

    A Chinese version of this article first appeared on The Paper.

    (Header image: Stephen Lam/Reuters)