Monday’s horrific decapitation of a little girl on a Taipei street has pushed the death penalty back to the forefront of public debate in Taiwan, where capital punishment used to be common, but has been severely limited in recent years following a number of controversial cases.
In March 1991, the murder-robbery of a Taiwanese couple prompted a police investigation that resulted in the arrest of one Wang Wen-hsiao, then a member of the ROC Marine Corp. Wang was ultimately convicted, based on fingerprint evidence and a confession; however, the police, unconvinced that Wang could have possibly accomplished both the murder and robbery without accomplices, were forced into accusing three other men as well.
Wang was readily convicted and executed in accordance with Taiwan’s laws on capital punishment, however the cases of the other three men dragged on for years. Dubbed the Hsichih (Xizhi) trio, the defendants argued in court that they all had been tortured into making false confessions that they had aided Wang in the murder-robbery, and that they also participated in the gang-rape of the wife.
Their statements in court were ultimately corroborated by the lack of physical evidence, but the case lingered in limbo for years until on August 31, 2012, Taiwan’s Supreme Court found the last of the three defendants innocent.
Two more cases in 1997 would also result in a public outcry. In both instance, the suspects were found to have been tortured into making false confessions, but unlike the case of the Hsichih trio, both suspects were executed even though physical evidence recovered from the crime scene seemed to corroborate their claims of torture and forced confessions.
With Taiwan having received criticism at different times in the past from both Amnesty International and from senior EU official Catherine Ashton, Taiwan’s capital punishment laws and its application have long been mired in controversy. Under pressure from both within Taiwan and from outside of it, President Ma Ying-jeou ultimately pledged that Taiwan would do more to adhere to international standards in regards to the death penalty, resulting in a sizable drop in the number of executions. Only 6 individuals were executed in Taiwan last year, down from 24 in 1999 and 78 in 1990. In recent years, while the continued existence of the death penalty has remained controversial, the topic has largely stayed quiet.
However the recent horrific murder of a four-year-old toddler in Taipei by a mentally disturbed man has prompted many Taiwanese to question the morality of sparing or executing individuals guilty of such monstrous crimes.
The crime occurred at around 11:00 a.m. on Monday in Taipei. A stranger approached a 4-year-old girl who had gotten her mini scooter stuck in a pothole in the street. He then suddenly attacked her with a cleaver, before the girl’s mother and grandfather could stop the man, he had severed her head.
The man, 33-year-old Wang Ching-yu is in police custody. He told police that he had beheaded “little light bulb” — the 4-year old girl’s family nickname — because he believed that she was from Sichuan, where his father is from, and that by killing her, he would therefore help to carry his ancestral line forward.
More recent attacks by similarly disturbed individuals all ultimately resulted in life sentences, but the murder of a child has seemed to have finally caused the debate to explode into the public sphere once more.
The KMT is slated to discuss passing a bill into law that would require murderers of children 12 and under to be subject to either the death penalty or life imprisonment. The White Rose Movement, launched in 2010 after a series of individuals found guilty of sexually abusing children were given sentences that many considered too light, has been extremely vocal in calling for the bill’s revival.
In a report by the SCMP, KMT Legislator Wang Yu-min was reported to have been the progenitor of the bill.
“Who is to return the right and justice to Little Light Bulb after she died in such a horrible way?” asked Wang. “We call on all of you to support my proposal that those who murder children under the age of 12 be automatically sentenced to death, or under specific circumstances, jailed for life.”
Meanwhile in a report by the Taipei Times, the leader of the White Rose Movement, Eva Liang, has been quoted calling on the government to be more proactive in its implementation of capital punishment.
“This kind of random killing shows that Taiwan cannot afford to abolish the death penalty,” association chairwoman Eva Liang said. “As Taiwan seldom enforces death sentences now, criminals are not afraid and similar crimes keep happening.”
Legislator-elect, metalhead, and head of Amnesty International’s Taiwan Branch Freddy Lim called for a more reasoned approach, arguing that the public should be focused more on preventing these attacks than on punishing them after the fact.
Another voice in the capital punishment debate has been the four-year-old’s mom, Claire Wang. In a TV interview following the death of her daughter, she said that she didn’t believe that any kind of regulation like the death penalty could stop these kind of random attacks from occurring. Instead, she said that she hoped they could be eliminated through better family and school education.
She clarified her thoughts yesterday on Facebook, writing that before this tragedy occurred she didn’t have any position on the death penalty worth speaking out about. She called on all groups not to use her, or her “little light bulb” to advance their own agendas:
In a speech broadcast on TV yesterday, Claire Wang, with an amazing level of poise, delivered five quick talking points and departed. She expressed the desire that the public debate be kept at a distance while the family mourns the loss of their child.
“If you are concerned about us or have sympathy, please respect us,” the mother said. “I don’t wish to see such discussions at the time being.”
Both President Ma and President-elect Tsai Ying-wen have expressed their condolences to the mother, with Tsai penning an open letter to Claire Wang yesterday.
“This incident deals a big blow to Taiwan’s society. Many Taiwanese people are saddened and feel insecure… We should work together so parents don’t have to worry and children can grow up safely,” Tsai wrote.
Obviously, this incident has little chance of quietly fading away from the public consciousness any time soon. On Monday, as the suspect was being moved outside the police station, an angry mob overwhelmed his police escort, bludgeoning the man with blows for all sides as he pleaded with them to “stop beating” him.
Additionally, yesterday, two more random attacks occurred in Taiwan, sparking fears that there will be even more copycat attackers to come, and amplifying advocates calls in seeking the death penalty on this case in order to dissuade copycats.
By Stanley Yu