Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Sunday, January 27, 2013

More on the timing of the Bo Xilai trial

Now we're being told (Global Times story here) that it will be after the March meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. According to the report, unnamed insiders say that the case is complicated and that the trial might last ten days.

Ten days would be extraordinarily atypical in a criminal trial. A recent study of a large sample (non-random, but those are the limitations of research in China) of criminal cases found that two thirds of Basic Leval court cases and one third of Intermediate Level court cases were completed within one hour, including adjournments. Of course, that's hardly surprising - in the vast majority of cases, the defendants admit most or all of the prosecution's case, so these trials are functionally similar to a US court's processing of a plea- bargained deal. (This is by no means to claim they are identical or problematic in the same way.) What empirical research shows, however, is what anecdotal evidence has long suggested: that matters of importance are almost never decided at the trial stage, and that the mere fact that the case has gotten that far is evidence that a guilty verdict will be forthcoming. (The acquittal rate is below 1%.)

But the Bo case is of course an atypical case. Still, if he’s not contesting the charges (Chinese criminal procedure doesn’t have a formal guilty/not guilty plea), one wonders what can be so complicated about it. If he is contesting the charges, then going forward with the trial really is atypical. Possibly he is being allowed to contest some minor aspects of the charges – for example, did he take $10 million in bribes or was it only $9 million – and the court will reject a few elements of the prosecution’s case in an attempt to show that it wasn’t all pre-ordained from the start.

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