Taiwan - Execution error raises new questions about death penalty
Imagine what was going through the mind of Air Force private Chiang Kuo-ching as he was being led to his execution in August 1997. What a horrifyingly surreal moment it must have been for the 21-year-old man to know he was about to die for a crime he did not commit. Stomachs knot and nerves shudder when we visualize the moment Chiang was escorted into the death chamber.
The story broke just before Chinese New Year. Without rehashing the details, it seems almost certain that in 1997, Taiwan killed an innocent man. He was sentenced for an offense that went beyond the boundaries of mere crime; the sadistic rape and murder of a little girl. Authorities thought they had their man, and they evidently felt that torturing him for more than a full day was justified considering the disgusting particulars of the case.
A thinking individual will likely accept that there are innocent people currently behind bars. Corruption, false testimony, faulty memories, poor legal representation and other factors can and do result in wrongful convictions. In these cases, however, society takes the utilitarian view of English philosopher and reformist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham's doctrine claims that we must look at the overall effect of a policy and ask whether in the end more people are harmed or hurt. This cold math is Bentham's yardstick for morality.
Although we might accept that there are some innocent people locked up with the guilty, the overall benefits of the legal system and the punishment it doles out outweigh the occasional pain inflicted on an innocent individual. It's hard to apply the same logic to the death penalty. After all, when errors are discovered, the wrongfully convicted are exonerated and paid hefty sums of compensation. It's impossible to compensate a dead person.
Some might point to torture as the culprit. Had Air Force private Chiang Kuo-ching not allegedly been subjected to 37 hours of torture by military investigators, he would not have “confessed.” But even without torture, mistakes happen. The U.S. state of Texas is currently investigating whether it may have executed an innocent man in 2004 in an arson murder case that may have been based on faulty science.
Taiwan now joins the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia on a list of nations that admit they have executed an innocent person. While this tragic event is a stain on our country's honor, the fact that Chiang's innocence was announced having gone undiscovered for some 14 years after his death, points to a new Taiwan that has truly and completely left behind the black hole of authoritarianism. You won't find China, Russia or Iran admitting to such a miscarriage of justice.
A new suspect in the case is now in custody. President Ma Ying-jeou has personally apologized to the family of serviceman Chiang. The military is looking into prosecuting those who handled the case and we can be sure financial compensation will be offered to the family. These are all positive signs that illustrate how far Taiwan has progressed democratically. But Chiang is still dead. Chiang's father, who fought for a decade to clear his son's name, died before Chiang's exoneration, while Chiang's mother has spent every day of the last 14 years contemplating the fate of her barely adult son.
Last year, Taiwan's former justice minister resigned after she said her religious beliefs precluded signing death warrants. She was replaced and several executions followed. For a time last year, it appeared as if Taiwanese society was ready to begin a serious debate on the subject of capital punishment, but the furor died down. The Chiang case gives us a chance to stop procrastinating and make some hard choices. No matter how much of a deterrent it is, as long as the death penalty continues to be used there remains a chance — however small it may be — that an innocent person will die in a state-sanctioned execution. The time has come for us to discuss how comfortable we are with this fact.