Prof McConville dedicated 15 years to his research, whose conclusions were published yesterday, in a book titled Criminal Justice in China: An Empirical Inquiry. In it, he analysed 1,144 original prosecution case files gathered from courts in 13 locations on the mainland, as well as 267 interviews with judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers.
He found that prosecution witnesses were produced in only 19 out of 227 trials and that in all but one only a single witness was produced.
Mainland courts' almost exclusive reliance on confessions for convictions, often resulting in long detention periods, were thus obtained by police, not judges and prosecutors.
Many defence lawyers surveyed said that police often tortured their clients to extract a confession, but did not raise the issue in court for fear of heavier sentences. Lawyers who did submit evidence about torture were always ignored.
Trials were also abnormally quick. Two thirds of the hearings in the lower courts and one third in the intermediate courts took less than an hour, excluding sentencing and delivery of the verdict. For McConville, the unusually high confession rate is the reason.
“If you have confessed, it is almost certain that you will be convicted," he said, adding that defence lawyers generally played a minimal role in trials.
In order to reach his conclusions, McConville interviewed 88 judges and 96 prosecutors, all anonymous. He found that they all took a passive role in a system primarily driven by state agencies.
In fact, judges and prosecutors acknowledged that trials are usually decided by police, who carry out the investigations and submit the evidence, reducing them to a passive role.
McConville's research also found that police concentrated on building a case against the suspect rather than on gathering evidence.
Overall, the mainland's legal system was "extremely disappointing,” the professor said.
Whilst the number of cases involved in the study is small, the research is important because it is the first independent empirical study of its kind.
Criticism of China’s legal system occurs regularly and has spurred some to call for reform, which has always been postponed (see “China, interrogations to be taped to prevent confession by torture,” in AsiaNews, 19 January 2006.
Veteran defence lawyer Mo Shaoping told the South China Morning Post that the law gives police sweeping power, who do not need approval from courts to conduct covert investigations or tap telephones, unlike in many other jurisdictions, and can hold suspects for up to 37 days without court approval.
“A common legal theory is that the bigger the power police enjoy, the weaker the rule of law,” Mo said. In recent years, some cases have backed that view, including some that ended with innocent people sentenced to life in prison or executed (see “Woman allegedly ‘murdered’ reappears after ‘killer’ executed,” in AsiaNews, 17 July 2005).
In one notorious case, a man who had accused the police of extracting a confession from him under torture, was still convicted by the court (See “Tortured man confessed to murdering wife who 11 years later turns up alive,” in AsiaNews, 12 May 2005).