SAN FRANCISCO (February 1, 2013) — Following recent achievements in limiting capital punishment and recognizing domestic violence as a leading trigger of women’s crimes, the case of Li Yan (李彦) provides another opportunity for China to demonstrate its commitment to legal reform. Li was convicted of homicide and sentenced to death by the Ziyang Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan Province. She allegedly killed her husband in self-defense in one of many instances during which he subjected her to physical abuse. After its review of the case, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) approved the death sentence.

In accordance with the Criminal Procedure Law and the Supreme People’s Court judicial interpretation regarding procedures for the stay of executions, the SPC, the Ziyang Intermediate People’s Court, or the procuratorial officer supervising the execution should suspend execution of a death sentence if: 1) there may be an error in the judgment, 2) the convicted performs major meritorious acts, or 3) the convicted is pregnant.

Given the circumstances and allegations, there is evidence that there may be an error in the judgment against Li Yan. About one third of Chinese families are reported to have experienced domestic violence, and the SPC recently created a task force to develop standards for sentencing in cases involving domestic violence. In Shandong, SPC research indicates that the heaviest sentence faced by women who killed their husbands in self-defense was death with reprieve. In 2009, the Hunan High People’s Court issued the first provincial guiding opinion on domestic violence, encouraging lighter sentences and sentence reductions for women who “fought violence with violence.” In 2010, the vice president of the Chongqing High People’s Court called crimes committed by domestic-violence survivors “less heinous.”

Even if domestic violence is only considered a personal dispute, a suspended death sentence would still be the norm. In a Legal Daily op-ed published in March 2008, Hu Yunteng, now director of the SPC Research Office, said:

In the past, when homicide cases arose from contradictions among people and neighborhood disputes, a large number of defendants were sentenced to death with immediate execution; now, however, the death penalty with immediate execution is nearly unknown in such cases.

“The Chinese government has made important progress in death penalty reform and women’s rights in recent years,” said Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm. “Creating new standards for cases involving domestic violence is likely to contribute to these reforms, but while these standards are under review, executions should be stayed to prevent irrevocable error.”

In accordance with the judicial interpretation regarding the stay of executions, if the SPC believes that an error exists that may impact the sentencing and determination of the crime, it should issue a ruling for the lower court to stay the execution. The lower court should then conduct an investigation along with relevant departments and submit their findings to the SPC for review by the collegiate bench that conducted the original death penalty review or, where necessary, by another collegiate bench. If the SPC determines that the original judgment was in error or the convicted performed major meritorious acts that require the judgment to be changed, it shall decide not to approve the death penalty, revoke the original judgment, and send the case back to the lower court for retrial.

China’s constitution provides another way to halt an execution. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress can issue pardons that are then issued by the head of state, at present, President Hu Jintao. This mechanism is rarely used however, and given the urgency of the Li Yan case, a better approach to staying the execution lies with exercising judicial restraint as provided by law.

Largely due to the return of the SPC’s power to review death sentences in 2007, the number of executions in China dropped by more than 50 percent to an estimated 4,000 executions in 2011. Given the high number annual executions, the Chinese government continues to work towards abolition through legal reform, as evidenced by recent revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law and Criminal Law.