Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:39 AM CST – China


Chen Man

Never Back Down

Wrongfully imprisoned for 23 years, Chen Man is now a free man thanks to the persistence of his legal team and a changing judicial environment

Chen Man (right) embraces his father after returning home to Mianzhu, Sichuan Province, February 2, 2016 Photo by china news service

Wang Wanqiong, a member of Chen Man’s defense team, talks to media after her client’s release, Haikou, Hainan Province, February 1, 2016 Photo by china news service

On February 19, 2016, Chen Man paid a visit to the grave of Lin Yiquan in Santai County, Sichuan Province. A law professor at Southwest University for Nationalities who died in 2003, Li had served as Chen’s defense counsel.

Chen knelt before his lawyer’s memorial, and his eyes blurred with tears. “Professor Lin went to Hainan, despite being sick, to defend me in court,” Chen told NewsChina. “He taught my case to his students. I owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Chen, 53, from Sichuan Province, was exonerated in early February by the People’s High Court of Zhejiang Province. The court overturned the two-year suspended death sentence for murder and arson that had led to Chen’s 23-year incarceration, citing insufficient evidence.


Wang Wanqiong, another member of Chen’s defense counsel, joined him in paying her respects to Lin Yiquan. She clearly remembers the first time she visited Lin’s home – mountains of materials related to Chen’s case occupied every corner. The quality of these materials played a key role in Chen’s acquittal.

“It is very difficult to overturn a conviction – it’s like winning the lottery,” said Wang. “Lin’s efforts strengthened our determination.”

In November 2013, Wang and Li Jinxing, another of the dozens of defense lawyers who represented Chen, began to voluntarily take on miscarriage of justice cases, founding an organization at Sichuan University designed to overturn wrongful convictions. This organization, named the Innocence Project, took Chen Man’s case as its debut campaign, a decision which proved to be a crucial turning point in his acquittal.

At the time the Innocence Project took an interest, Chen Man’s parents were debt-ridden by years of fruitless appeals. Several lawyers told our reporter that they made the decision to defend Chen because they were moved by both the conscience of his previous legal counsel and the persistence of his parents.

“There was abundant evidence that Chen had been wrongly imprisoned, but it took 23 years to quash the conviction. Beyond following legal procedure, persistence and conscience were crucial,” said Li Jinxing.


At 8 PM on Christmas Day, 1992, a fire broke out in Shangpoxia Village in the city of Haikou, Hainan Province. When firefighters arrived, they found the charred remains of a man whose neck and back clearly bore fatal knife wounds. A work permit with Chen Man’s name on it was found at the scene, and Chen was initially presumed to have been the victim.

Two days later, the body was identified, and a few days after that, local police charged Chen with homicide and arson. Chen’s parents, now both in their 80s, never doubted their son’s innocence and immediately launched an appeal. Chen told NewsChina that he never gave up hope in prison because of the unfailing support of his parents.

Li Jinxing told our reporter that any experienced lawyer who spent five minutes with his case file could see that there was no physical evidence that directly implicated Chen. What’s more, Li claimed, Chen’s incessant flip-flopping – pleading guilty then denying involvement in the crime – was evidence that police were trying to obtain a forced confession. “The defendant would not plead guilty unless he was beaten,” said Li.

Chen was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve by the People’s High Court of Hainan Province on November 9, 1994, a sentence upheld at a second trial on April 15, 1999. Neither trial heard witness testimony or allowed the presentation of material evidence. In Li Jinxing’s opinion, the most egregious violation of due process was the fact that both judges insisted on a death sentence even though there was sufficient evidence and testimony to prove that Chen did not have the window of time necessary to commit the crime.

“The law should be rational in deciding the fate of a defendant, and judges are the last line of defense for justice,” Li said.

Wu Jiasen, a Sichuan lawyer who died in 1996, and Cao Zheng, a criminal lawyer of the Xinjiang Lawyers’ Association, represented Chen at his first trial. After receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer, Wu recommended that Lin Yiquan replace him as Chen’s defense attorney. During the second trial, Lin and Cao continued to seek an acquittal, and denounced the decision to hear what they alleged was false testimony from a police officer.

“At the time in question you [the police officer] had not yet started your shift. How could you have witnessed Chen Man scoping out the crime scene? This is false testimony,” Cao told the court. However, Chen’s sentence was upheld.

The first turning point came in 2004 when Cheng Shirong returned to her hometown in Mianzu, Sichuan Province. A former colleague of Chen Man’s parents, Cheng had a basic knowledge of the law, and immediately turned her hand to overturning Chen’s conviction after hearing the details of his case, launching a public campaign to free him.

Cheng was conscious of the fact that she was not qualified to represent Chen herself, so she began searching for new counsel. Nobody wanted to take the job. Cheng had to draft Chen’s appeals by herself. She sometimes felt helpless, but meetings with Chen’s parents helped inspire her to carry on. “I really wanted to do something to relieve his parents’ pain and make them feel better,” she said. “It was also hard for me to let go of the case after years of effort.”

In August 2011, Cheng opened a Sina microblog account and began publicizing details of Chen’s case, a move that quickly gained the attention of the public and the media. In 2013, after nine years of work, Cheng finally caught a break – Li Jinxing approached her on behalf of the Innocence Project, offering to represent Chen pro bono.


On January 7, 2014, the Innocence Project held a seminar in Beijing, inviting dozens of lawyers and legal scholars to discuss Chen’s case. Other than a few participants who expressed reservations, a general consensus emerged that Chen was wrongly convicted. Xu Xin, a law professor from the Beijing Institute of Technology, published the content of the seminar on his microblog account, exposing the story to his readership of over one million people.

Cheng also kept the public up to date on Chen’s case, and launched a series of fundraisers. Hundreds of Chen’s classmates and friends donated around half a million yuan (US$76,800) for the cause. Meanwhile, Chen learned from TV and newspapers that his case was making headlines. After discovering that the issue of wrongful convictions was gaining prominence in China, and that a number of innocent convicts had already been freed as part of a judicial reform program, Chen began to hope his own conviction might be overturned.

On February 10, 2015, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) lodged a protest with the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), saying that the High Court of Hainan Province had “wrongly determined the facts” of Chen’s case, leading to “an error in the application of the law.”

Yi Yanyou, another acting lawyer representing Chen who is also a law professor at Tsinghua University, called the move a “significant legal event,” telling NewsChina that this marked the first time the SPP had lodged such a protest regarding an excessively severe sentence – typically such protests only come when procurators object to an acquittal, or what they view as an overly lenient punishment.

On May 25, 2015, the SPP officially informed Yi Yanyou and Wang Wanqiong that the High People’s Court of Zhejiang Province would launch a review of Chen’s case. Under China’s Criminal Procedure Law, major criminal cases can be reviewed by judicial organs in a province other than the one in which a crime was committed in order to ensure due process and avoid regional protectionism. Concerns that local judicial officials might attempt to disrupt legal proceedings to protect their own reputations are particularly acute in wrongful conviction cases. However, Chen’s counsel did not receive notice of their court date for several months. Chen’s lawyers, his parents and Cheng Shirong kept up the pressure by continuing to publicize Chen’s case online.

Wang Wanqiong told our reporter that on one occasion the Zhejiang high court called her and asked her to stop writing open letters online, saying that the court had interviewed three material witnesses who would testify on Chen’s behalf, and promising her a “satisfying answer” very soon.

On February 1, 2016, the People’s High Court of Zhejiang officially declared Chen innocent. Li Jinxing attributed the acquittal to the online coverage which sensationalized the case, bringing it to the attention of higher authorities. In addition to Chen Man’s case, he added, all wrongful convictions that have been overturned to date were the focus of large-scale online awareness campaigns. Li told our reporter that he is receiving a growing number of emails related to similar appeals. He estimates that China will see a peak in overturned convictions in five to 10 years.

Online appeals to the public, Li is adamant, are the product of desperation, and while they help bring miscarriages of justice to light, they can be a double-edged sword that shreds the mutual trust that should supposedly exist between lawyers and the judiciary.

A judge who spoke on condition of anonymity told NewsChina that after Chen Man was acquitted, some staff members of the People’s High Court of Hainan Province voiced their view that the courts have become a “stepping stone” for lawyers to “seek fame.” They also expressed dissatisfaction with the procuratorial organs.

“To begin with, the Hainan provincial procuratorate thought that Chen Man had received an excessively light penalty and insisted on an immediate execution. It was the high court who upheld the original verdict and saved Chen’s life,” the same source told NewsChina. “Now, the SPP is blaming us for handing down an excessively heavy penalty.”

This anonymous source went on to say that concern exists in Chinese judicial circles that the more wrongful convictions are overturned, the more appeals will be lodged. With courts hearing hundreds of cases each year, he argued, judges have “no energy” to hear cases relating to previous convictions, even wrongful ones.

“Unless cornered,” he said, “courts are unlikely to take the initiative on overturning a wrongful conviction.”


According to Wang Wanqiong, procuratorates and courts have historically maintained a “good relationship.” Procurators usually offer legal suggestions rather than lodging formal protests that would necessitate a retrial – viewed by judges, Wang remarked, as a “slap in the face.” For their part, courts will keep inconvenient witnesses off the stand so as not to risk blocking the “suggested sentence” specified in the indictment provided by the procuratorate.

The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission under the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China unveiled China’s first directive to prevent miscarriages of justice in August 2013. This directive included a requirement for courts to establish a “lifelong liability system” for judges – a system that would hold China’s judges accountable in perpetuity for presiding over any miscarriages of justice.

Neither Chen’s current legal team nor Chen himself wished to comment on this pledge. Chen fears that seeking redress against those who wrongfully convicted him might complicate his application for compensation from the government. His counsel, meanwhile, are concerned about the potential impact on the outcome of future wrongful conviction cases.

“If judicial officials are held accountable for any miscarriage of justice for their entire life, the most likely outcome is that they will rack their brains for ways to stop the overturning of convictions,” said Yi Yanyou.

Lawyers and legal scholars agree that rather than lifelong liability for judges, the best and easiest way to eradicate wrongful judgments and the obtaining of false confessions under torture would be by guaranteeing the presence of defense lawyers at all criminal hearings. While the Hainan court has never acknowledged that Chen’s confession was obtained under torture, Yi argued that only torture could extract a false confession from someone charged with a capital crime.

Chen Man told NewsChina that, on one occasion, police officers took him to the top of a building and threatened to throw him off the roof if he refused to confess, claiming they would tell their superiors that Chen committed suicide to escape punishment. He described being deprived of sleep while in detention, and how his captors coached him on what to say in court.

According to Yuan Ningning, a legal researcher at Beijing Normal University, the use of torture during interrogations became commonplace during a high-profile government crackdown on criminality in the 1980s and 1990s, a campaign which led to China’s huge number of miscarriages of justice. “At that time, the police had little awareness of human rights protection. They pursued a high clearance rate and their investigative skills were inadequate,” Yuan told China Daily.

Yuan added that torture and coercion have become less routine since the government began to pursue selective legal and judicial reform. In 2012, the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, officially banned torture in an amendment to the country’s Criminal Procedure Law. In 2013, the SPC released a guideline requiring


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