Two decades ago, Zhou Yuan was sentenced to death for murder and rape. Yesterday, he was finally declared innocent of all charges. Fortunately, he lived to see his name cleared.
On Thursday, a Xinjiang high court ruled that earlier judgments made against Zhou were based on insufficient evidence, clearing the 47-year-old man who spent 15 of those years in prison of the final two charges against him.
Zhou was arrested in 1997 following a string of sexual assaults, rapes, stabbings, and murders that had terrorized women in the city of Yining starting in 1991. During interrogation, Zhou confessed to committing 38 of these crimes. He was sentenced to death with a two-year stay of execution, despite the lack of other evidence against him.
While Zhou was awaiting his execution, another suspect who had been arrested named Huo Yong confessed to 34 thefts and sexual assaults, providing detailed descriptions that happened to match many of the crimes which Zhou was supposed to have committed. Huo was executed after the court ruled that he had raped and sexually assaulted six women.
Following Huo’s execution, Zhou and his mother quickly appealed for a second trial which ended in 1999 with Zhou’s punishment being reduced from death to life imprisonment for seven assaults. The following year, the number of assaults pinned on Zhou was reduced further to five.
In 2011, that number went down to just two with his sentence reduced once again to 15 years in prison. He was finally released from jail in 2012 with his mother telling the press that her son had been tortured into making a confession by police.
Afterward, Zhou and his mom continued to fight to clear his name. Following numerous appeals, the Supreme People’s Court of China instructed the Xinjiang high court to retry Zhou’s case based on insufficient evidence. In the trial, he was finally cleared of the two remaining counts of indecent assault on his record.
Following the decision, Zhou’s mother told reporters that she was happy to have at last received justice in the case, but couldn’t help lamenting what her son’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment had done to her family. “If this had not happened, wouldn’t my husband still be around? Wouldn’t Zhou Yuan’s son already be in college?” she said.
The wheels of Chinese justice certainly turned slowly for Zhou Yuan, but at least he was around to witness his own exoneration. On Chinese social media, Zhou’s case has brought to mind a Hebei teenager named Nie Shubin who was not so lucky. Nie was finally found not guilty of rape and murder last year, 21 years after being executed for the crimes.