Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Monday, May 16, 2011

How often are suspended death penalty sentences commuted?

Recently Caixin posted a table showing punishments for corrupt officials at the level of vice minister and above. A striking feature of the list is that there haven't been any executions since Zheng Xiaoyu in 2007. Although several officials were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve (allowable under Chinese law), those sentences were all later commuted to a lesser sentence (the law allows commutation to life imprisonment or to a term of 15 to 20 years). There was some discussion on a listserv of which I'm a member about whether this commutation showed favoritism to high officials. I believe it does not. While sentencing to death with a two-year reprieve, as opposed to immediate execution, might indicate favoritism, the commutation itself is quite standard.

That, at least, represents conventional wisdom in the Chinese law community. I was wondering whether that was really correct, though, so I did some more research. As far as I can tell, the conventional wisdom is indeed correct, although it would be nice to have better data.

The latest numbers I can find (in a quick search) come from a master's thesis completed in April 2010. The thesis cites a 1995 work by Hu Yunteng and a 2007 work edited by Chen Xingliang. Hu Yunteng states that according to statistics from "the relevant departments," 99.9% of death sentences with a two-year reprieve do not result in executions. (Those "relevant departments" must be very busy, as their work is constantly cited in China.) (胡云腾,死刑通论,中国政法大学出版社(1995), p. 241)

Chen Xingliang cites research he did on sentence reduction. Of 726 randomly selected sentence-reduction cases (not just in death penalty cases), reprieved death sentences were commuted to life 202 times and to a 15- to 20-year sentence never. This does not, of course, tell us how many reprieved sentences were not commuted at all. Chen later notes, however, that in one court he studied, reprieved death sentences resulted in executions in only 4 cases: in one case, the convict escaped during the two-year term (and was recaptured), and in the other three the convicts had committed murder (or assault leading to death) during the term. (陈兴良主编,宽严相济刑事政策研究,中国人民大学出版社(2007),p. 77) Again, we don't know the total number of reprieved sentences during the same time period, so these numbers are not as helpful as they might be. They don't, however, contradict the conventional wisdom.

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Last Fall, I had a Canadian exchange student who wrote an interesting term paper for my Chinese public law class arguing that opponents of the death penalty in the US might think about advocating that places like Texas adopt China's suspended death sentence model as an alternative to straight capital punishment, as a way to begin weening Texas and other places from their addiction to capital punishment.

Posted by: Mike Dowdle | May 18, 2011 6:19:51 PM

As you know, Mike, Canadians have naturally superior insight into China's legal system. Agree with your student. Texas could learn a lot from China - to start with, the idea of being embarrassed about one's death penalty system instead of proud of it.

Posted by: Don Clarke | May 26, 2011 10:33:31 AM

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