Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Domestic abuse victim's death sentence overturned; case sent back for re-trial

The death sentence imposed on Li Yan, who killed her abusive husband, was recently overturned on review (not technically an appeal) by the Supreme People's Court. The case will go back to the Higher-Level People's Court (i.e., the provincial-level court) of Sichuan Province for re-trial.

Here are the key elements of the case as reported that I want to discuss:

1. "China's Supreme People's Court has ordered a higher court in the southwestern province of Sichuan to retry the case because of insufficient evidence and lack of clarity on some facts"

2. "Li, 43, was sentenced to death in 2012 for killing her husband Tan Yong. Tan had physically, sexually and verbally abused Li for more than three years, burning her with cigarettes and cutting off one of her fingers"

3. "Li beat her husband to death with an air gun after he threatened to shoot her."

4. "Supporters say Li should not have been sentenced to death because the police and the first two courts did not take into consideration the abuse she had suffered."

Point 2 is a claim that certain facts existed.

Point 4 is a claim that those facts are legally relevant to the case, and that the first two courts committed an error of law by not taking them into account.

Point 1 appears to represent an acknowledgement by the SPC of the validity of Point 4.

Finally, Point 3 suggests that regardless of whether other facts exist and are relevant, the homicide was not premeditated.

The point of all this is to note the disparity in the sentence meted out to Li Yan on the basis of apparently undisputed facts and the sentence meted out to Gu Kailai, the wife of Bo Xilai who was convicted of the murder of Neil Heywood. (Gu got a death sentence with a two-year suspension; such sentences are virtually always commuted to life imprisonment at the end of the two-year period.) In that case, there was no dispute that the homicide was premeditated. There is also generally no dispute that premeditated homicide is worse than non-premeditated homicide. Thus, even if the first two courts in Li Yan's case were right, and the evidence of prior abuse was either insufficient or irrelevant, we still find someone convicted of unpremeditated murder getting a harsher sentence than someone convicted of premeditated murder.

It's not that Li's sentence is unusual; it's that Gu's sentence is unusual.

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