Zhang Huangzi had no doubt her son was innocent, even when the courts told her he had confessed to the crime. In 1995, 20-year-old Nie Shubin was convicted of killing and raping a woman.

He was executed in 1995.

Now 21 years later, Zhang has finally won a battle to prove his innocence. A court in Shenyang has overturned the original verdict of rape and murder of a 19 year old woman, due to insufficient evidence.

Nie shubin retrial
Nie Shubin. Photo: Sina.

On Friday, the Second Circuit Court of the Supreme People’s Court exonerated Nie 11 years after someone else confessed to the crime.

In 2005, Wang Shujin was arrested on separate charges. He was later convicted of the rape and murder of four other women.

Nie was tried behind closed doors – even his parents weren’t allowed in the courtroom, but Nie told his lawyer that he was beaten into a confession. Seven months after he was detained, the government executed Nie without notifying his parents.

His mother has been fighting to exonerate him for years, and the case caused the legal community, the media and the public to call for an examination of the flaws in the legal system. The country’s highest court – the Supreme People’s Court – ordered a court in Shandong to review the original ruling in June this year.

Nie’s mother and her lawyer were present at the courthouse Friday morning, where the court announced its ruling. The court found that the events were unclear and the evidence insufficient in the original verdict, and acquitted Nie.

Legality of confession questionable

“The conviction did not fulfill the requirement of being based on clear basic facts and conclusive evidence,” the ruling stated.

The court found that the evidence did not definitively prove Nie’s guilt. The time of the crime, the origin of the murder weapon, the victim’s time of death and cause of death could not be determined, it said in its ruling.

It also found that records of police interrogations during the first five days of Nie’s detention were missing, as were many other records of questioning of witnesses. In its ruling, the court said the veracity and legality of Nie’s confession are questionable. It is not certain whether the crime was carried out by someone else, it said.

Nie shubin retrial
Nie’s mother speaking to Caixin after the Supreme Court’s decision for a retrial. Photo: Screenshot from Caixin video.

“The overturning of the original verdict is a very positive move, and shows how some within the Chinese government – especially the Supreme People’s Court – are willing to correct historic injustices,” William Nee, a researcher at Amnesty International, told HKFP.

“It is also a testament to Nie Shubin’s family – who has been tirelessly advocating on his behalf for over two decades.”

“However, this case also illustrates that the death penalty as currently applied in China is still flawed and prone to mistakes. The only way to truly ensure that future tragic cases like Nie Shubin won’t occur, is to stop tinkering with the machinery of death, and make the bold move to abolish the death penalty.”

catherine lai

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.