The death penalty plays a significant role within China’s criminal sanctions system, with the nation routinely topping annual lists that track executions. In China, the death penalty is not restricted to violent crimes, but extends to non-violent offenses, including economic crimes of embezzlement, fraud and corruption (according to international standards, these crimes should instead be punished by imprisonment). Given the prevalence of death sentences in China, the relatively weak role of defense counsel and the gravity of the penalty, local advocates including judges, academics and attorneys have pursued reforms on both the legal framework and the quality of representation.
In mid-August, the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) and the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project (ABA DPRP), with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, hosted a nine-person delegation of Chinese defense attorneys and criminal defense experts for a study tour to the United States. The tour provided technical support for recent reforms in China, in which three provincial lawyers associations in Shandong, Henan and Guizhou provinces have issued China’s first practice guidelines for defense attorneys in capital cases.
During the visit, the delegation observed court proceedings and met with defense attorneys, mitigation specialists, prosecutors and judges to discuss the ABA’s Guidelines for Appointment and Performance of Counsel in Death Penalty Cases. Robin Maher, Director of the ABA DPRP, accompanied the delegates, and provided keen insights throughout the study tour into the role of the ABA in promoting implementation of the ABA guidelines. The trip included visits to Pennsylvania and Arizona, two states where the guidelines play a significant role in guiding public and private defenders in their representation of defendants in capital cases. The meetings provided a greater understanding of the roles that state bar associations, judges and defenders have played in encouraging the ABA guidelines’ implementation. Discussion topics included the guidelines’ effect on raising the quality of representation and the mechanisms for monitoring lawyer performance and disciplining lawyers.
The participants commended the exchanges with their U.S. counterparts and remarked that the visits encouraged them to think about meaningful implementation of their own representation guidelines. One participant was especially interested in the roles of mitigation specialists and investigators on capital defense teams and he expressed his desire to develop trainings for legal aid attorneys in his home province. Similarly, two delegation members were very impressed with the presentation of a victim advocate with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The advocate spoke about reaching out to the family members of victims to better address their needs and about the impact that effective victim advocacy can have on the outcome of capital cases. Several of the Chinese participants expressed their intention to follow-up with the presenter to learn more about victim outreach practices in the United States.
To learn more about our work in China, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected].