Why Lawyers Are The Only Opposition To The Death Penalty In China

A murder case in which a Chinese student poisoned and killed his roommate has brought out the worst in the Chinese public, which is practically marching with pitchforks for his execution. Attorneys, meanwhile, are urging that he be spared.

Trial at the Higher People's Court of Yunnan Province, China
Trial at the Higher People's Court of Yunnan Province, China
Lan Rongjie


BEIJING — Two years ago, Shanghai medical student Lin Senhao fatally poisoned his roommate. He was sentenced to death last year for intentional homicide, and his case is currently being reviewed. Though it's difficult to predict the final outcome, the public appears bloodthirsty, eager for him to pay the ultimate price for his crime.

Lin's case is reminiscent of another one a few years ago in which university music student Yao Jiaxin knocked over a pedestrian and then stabbed her to death because she was trying to write down his license plate number. He was executed in 2011.

In both cases, the accused were and are college students, but there is another significant similarity: Public opinion was and is surprisingly consistent in calling for the death penalty. Meanwhile, a weak voice of opposition to execution is coming from none other than the legal community.

Whether Yao deserved the death penalty in 2011 or whether Lin deserves it now is a matter of opinion. But the legal community, which is overwhelmingly against capital punishment in Lin's case, and the public, which is practically marching with pitchforks, couldn't be more divided.

Are people in the legal community simply more merciful, or is it because "lawyers are the devil's advocate"? Kindness and mercy aren't typically character traits associated with lawyers. While judges often enjoy the assumption of impartiality, attorneys have a much more complicated image. At best, they are deemed resourceful and courageous. At worst, they are cunning and greedy.

On the contrary, there are many people among the public at large who can't bear even the idea of killing a chicken or cutting a fish. So why is it that, in the face of young offenders such as Lin Senhao and Yao Jiaxin, they become more bloodthirsty than those whose work is in the law?

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Yao Jiaxin — Photo: SyaNHs/Wikimedia Commons

Explaining the divide

It may be at least partly explained by the proximity that the general public and the legal community have respectively to such cases. Many lawyers and judges deal with criminal cases daily, and are frequently exposed to the facts and circumstances of bloodshed and murder. They are familiar with the most brutal side of human nature, and consequently are both less prone to be shocked and more likely to understand any mitigating factors.

Meanwhile, a murder case can easily stir strong emotions in ordinary citizens. As the saying goes, everyone has a steelyard in their heart. While the legal community may feel there are extenuating circumstances in Lin's case, public opinion lacks nuance and regards the offense as absolutely unforgivable.

The phenomenon may also be explained by the degree of the murderer's "personification" in the minds of the two groups. To most people, Lin is a stranger and an abstract symbol. The public's understanding of him is limited to the rough outline of his case and probably a few lines of news summaries.

But someone familiar with the law regards the defendant in the context of his background and circumstance. Lin isn't seen as an abstraction but as a real young man whose circumstances and history help to define him.

This also explains why some Fufan University students want Lin to be spared. Though his crime has left them distraught, it's much more difficult to wish death for someone you know than for a stranger. The same is true for reporters who have delved deeply into Lin's case, who understand him as a person. They too are among the minority of people who reject the notion that executing Lin is the only way to achieve justice.

Finally, the public's alignment with victims may also help explain their pitchfork mentality. Empathy is a human instinct at the root of emotions such as mercy, compassion and anger. Faced with the knowledge of a vicious murder, the public's self-protection is triggered, and it identifies with the victim. By contrast, lawyers and judges are trained to consider the defendant's rights and to presume innocence.

Such empathy is often reflected in criminal trials. In rape cases, for instance, women judges generally give heavier sentences than male judges. But in juvenile delinquency cases, it's the other way around. In the first case, judges are perhaps swayed by their vulnerability as women, and in the second case by their protective instincts as mothers.

Though criminal law professors say that capital penalties are inevitable in China, they nevertheless advocate the progressive abolition of the death penalty. Meanwhile, the notion of "a life for a life" is an ingrained conviction among the Chinese public.

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