2013: Xia Junfeng, chengguan slayer

1 comment September 25th, 2013 Headsman

China has announced the execution this day of “homicide criminal” Xia Junfeng, a kebab vendor from Shenyang.

This case has been in the public eye for several years, and the predominant sentiment has been sympathetic towards the condemned man.

Xia and his wife Zhang Jing were part of China’s vast population of working urban poor, Xia having found his way into job insecurity by virtue of a layoff from the state electricity company. In the entrepreneurial spirit of the age, Xia started up an unlicensed business selling sausages and the like.

These denizens of the gray economy are, as a class, afflicted by the attentions of the City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, better known as the chengguan. Their benign job description entails administering municipal regulations, but this much-loathed force’s relationship to everyday citizens is perhaps best illustrated by the word chengguan‘s status as a shorthand neologism for bullying and abuse. Too many people know this goon squad firsthand, and too many stories of their worst excesses have circulated. Just this past July, the chengguan made headlines by killing a watermelon vendor.

“Chengguan abuses are an open scandal in China,” said Human Rights Watch’s China director. “The chengguan’s ability to flout China’s laws and inflict harm on members of the public is a recipe for greater public resentment and more violent confrontations.”

In the violent confrontation at issue in today’s execution, the chengguan chengguanned Xia Junfeng in May 2009. Xia fought back with his meat-carving knife, and slew two of his tormenters.

Death penalty cases redolent of the social stratification and institutional corruption that ordinary Chinese people experience have proven to be lightning rods in recent years.

Xia Junfeng’s turned, legally, on his claim that he killed protecting himself from the chengguan‘s beating.*

“Extralegal violence, thus employed to compensate for inadequate regulation and an absence of authority and legal deterrence, is no longer individual behavior. Such violence exists everywhere with the permission of the authorities. It is needed because of an overriding concern for “city image” and “urban management.” Finally, when extralegal violence is not monitored by the people and the media, and not punished by the law, it is only natural for Chengguan members to feel justified. Using violence with impunity enables the Chengguans to see violence psychologically as their “privilege,” a sign of status and pride. Since the legal and political status of Chengguan is unclear, it is only natural for its members to seek personal gain, vent their anger, and prey on the citizens they were intended to protect.”

-from the closing argument of Xia’s defense attorney

This allegation didn’t fly in court, where brother chengguan denied that they’d been abusing the shishkebaber, but it’s won in a rout when it comes to the court of public opinion. “His life and death are more than just a legal matter, but a bellwether of the era, with the tsunami-like public opinion firmly on the side of Xia Junfeng,” wrote author Yi Chen today.

Particularly galling for many is the disparity in treatment between Xia Junfeng and the likes of Gu Kailai, the latter a powerful business and political figure who was able to avoid execution despite being convicted of a scandalous contract murder. And Chengguan themselves never seem to be at risk of harsh punishment for any misbehavior; had Xia Junfeng been the one to leave that confrontation in a body bag, there certainly wouldn’t have been a death penalty case.


Anonymous cartoon circulated on Weibo criticizing Xia Junfeng’s condemnation. (Via) The drawing of the boy in the background was done by Xia’s son, whose art school fees were earned by his father’s roadside business.

Chinese speakers might want to peruse the Weibo feed of Xia’s widow.

* Several years ago, self-defense helped a Beijing migrat worker avoid execution for killing a chengguan who attempted to confiscate his bicycle cart.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines

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2003: Vignes Mourthi, framed in Singapore?

Add comment September 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 2003, 23-year-old Malaysian Vignes Mourthi was hanged in Singapore’s Changi Prison as a drug courier, along with his supposed collaborator Moorthy Angappan.

Mourthi vigorously maintained his innocence, and his family has done likewise in the years since, helping turn the young factory worker into a wrongful-execution poster child.

It was a Sgt. Rajkumar who arrested Mourthi by posing as a buyer of his cargo. Rajkumar would later present an undated, unsigned “confession” purporting to show that Mourthi was completely aware that it was heroin he was moving. At first read one might might indeed doubt Mourthi’s insistence that he thought he was carrying “incense stones” … but his compatriot Angappan was indeed an incense dealer and a family friend known to Mourthi as such.

British journalist Alan Shadrake‘s 2010 indictment of Singaporean justice Once a Jolly Hangman (banned in its titular city-state) calls Mourthi’s hanging “arguably one of the most appalling miscarriages of justice in Singapore’s history”.

Rajkumar’s testimony about Mourthi’s confession was instrumental in hanging the young man, but just a couple of days after he arrested Mourthi, Rajkumar himself was arrested (and then released on bail) on a rape accusation. According to the recent book Once a Jolly Hangman, whose denunciations of Singapore’s death penalty system earned its author a prison term in the repressive city-state,

Intense efforts were … made by Rajkumar’s many friends in the CNB and a police friend at Clementi Police Station to persuade ‘J’ to withdraw her statement. The bribes involved large sums of money, which she refused … There were frantic, secret meetings between Rajkumar, his police officer friends and his accuser in shopping malls and fast-food outlets during which he, his family and friends continued to offer large sums of money in exchange for withdrawing her allegations. All this intrigue was going on while Rajkumar was busy getting enough evidence together to ensure Mourthi would be found guilty and hanged.

So. That’s less than ideal.

Sadly for the accused, none of this credibility-melting information was ever known during Mourthi’s trial and appeal. After Mourthi’s execution, the bad cop who hanged him went on trial for corruption over his witness-tampering, and eventually served 15 months.

Certainty is never given to mortals. But Mourthi’s father for one has no doubt: “I know he is innocent.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Malaysia,Ripped from the Headlines,Singapore,Wrongful Executions

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2011: Troy Davis, doubts aside

11 comments September 21st, 2011 Headsman

The reader is likely aware that as of 7 p.m. this evening, Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison local time, a man named Troy Anthony Davis will die by lethal injection — barring some sort of intervention that by this point would rate just this side of the miraculous.

Since Davis already had one of those, an extraordinary 11th-hour Supreme Court intervention the last time he was up for death, you’d have to guess he’s over quota as it is.

The controversial particulars of this case are too voluminously available for this space to hope to contribute much. As Scott Lemieux observes, the affirmative case for Troy Davis’s innocence is not a slam dunk: but the evidence as it exists, of unreliable eyewitness accounts from a nighttime scene, supplied under police pressure and later largely retracted, could today hardly approach the threshold of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. I don’t know if Troy Davis shot Mark MacPhail, and neither do you. Davis dies for it tonight just the same: all the paperwork is in order.

The “demon of error,” Illinois Gov. George Ryan called it, as he emptied that state’s death row. This unsettling matter demands one play bookmaker with a man’s life. Are you as much as 80% sure? Would that be sure enough? Maybe the uncertainties are unusually large here, but at some level this is the calculus for most criminal adjudications, death or otherwise.

“If a case like this doesn’t result in clemency, which is a discretionary process that calls a halt to an execution based on doubt surrounding the integrity of the verdict, then it suggests that clemency as a traditional fail-safe is not adequate,” criminologist James Acker told the Christian Science Monitor. “The Davis case raises doubts about the discretionary clemency process and ultimately raises doubts about whether the legal system can tolerate this potential error in allowing a person to be executed.”

Clemency as an inadequate, dead-letter procedure (Gov. Ryan aside) is familiar to any observer of the American capital punishment scene; Rick Perry thinks he can disdain it all the way to the presidency.

Perry’s state of Texas has something in common with Georgia: the clemency decisions are not directly in the hands of the governor. It’s an interesting arrangement that helps to scatter responsibility for that weightiest of decisions; every actor in the apparatus is in a position to say, “I alone did not have power of life and death.”

Georgia is one of just five states (not including Texas, where the governor has final say and exercises significant behind-the-scenes power over his advisors) where the clemency process is entirely vested in a committee.* The Georgia Governor is a fellow named Nathan Deal, and his autopen will spill much ink in the hours ahead signing form response letters explaining that he doesn’t have anything to do with pardons or clemencies in his state and thanks for writing.

It wasn’t always this way.

A predecessor of Deal’s in that mansion, one with a promising political career ahead, was bayed out of politics for exercising his prerogative to spare Leo Frank because “I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience.” The modern office-seeker typically comes with this accusatory module helpfully un-installed, but one can see how there’d be advantages to removing from the office anything to invite experimentation with self-destructive scruples.

The roots of Georgia’s current system go back to the 1930s, when the notoriously corrupt Eurith Rivers held the governorship and used the solemn power of pardons like merchants in the temple — and every bit as lucratively.

The “pardons racket” continued under Rivers’s successor, until a young reformist captured the office and dramatically rewrote the way Georgia did business.

Among those reforms was the progressive concept of rooting out the pardons racket by removing the authority from the governor’s hands. No pardon power, no embarrassing Marc Rich cases. As Gov. Arnall himself explained,

There were those who used to say facetiously, “If you bring the governor a cow, he’ll get you a pardon for your kinfolks, or if you get him a bale of cotton if you do this, or if you get the right lawyer or if you get the right set-up, you can get pardons, pardons, pardons.” So they had gotten a lot of pardons, and the newspapers were after them day in and day out for granting these pardons.

Pardons, pardons, pardons. You can’t get hold of them for a bale of cotton any longer.

These institutions naturally have a life of their own, and what was forward-looking under Georgia’s 1943 constitution seems anything but to Troy Davis’s supporters this day. In the end, the board is still appointed by governors, and it predictably skews towards prosecutors and police — the latter of whom are out for Davis’s blood since Mark MacPhail wore a badge for his day job. It deliberates behind closed doors, and need not record or account for its considerations.

But this is really the lament against the decision itself more so than the process: individual governors are no more bound to broadcast their decision-making process, although some choose to do so. The rules of the game matter, but whatever they might be, it is humans who apply them — human judgment that makes the choices, whether as the first officers on the scene, as jurors, or as a panel of inscrutable bureaucrats with power over life and death.

* Here’s an example of a similar committee in Nebraska granting a pardon, in the relatively less-fraught circumstance of a man 100 years dead.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.


Update: After a last-second reprieve that extended into a four-hour execution-night drama, the U.S. Supreme Court denied (pdf) Davis’s last appeal. He was executed at 11:08 p.m.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Georgia,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wrongful Executions

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