April 25, 2008 / 9:48 AM / in 10 years

China hears death row defense by video for first time

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s top court has interrogated a death penalty defendant via a video link for the first time since a key legal reform aimed at cutting wrongful executions, Xinhua news agency said on Friday.

In January 2007, the Supreme People’s Court took back power of final approval on death penalties, relinquished to provincial high courts in the 1980s, and promised to apply the ultimate punishment more carefully.

The reform, prompted by public outcries over a series of high-profile and wrong death sentences in recent years, had nevertheless greatly increased the workload of the top court, Chinese media have said.

“The Supreme People’s Court judges have had to travel to places across the country to meet the defendants. It is both time-consuming and costly,” Xinhua quoted an unnamed official from the top court as saying.

On Friday, the top court questioned Jiang Huaquan, sentenced to death for drug trafficking in the southeastern province of Fujian, from Beijing through a video link, Xinhua said.

“Distance interrogation can not only ensure face-to-face communication but also ... boost efficiency of the final review work maximally,” the official was quoted as saying.

The questioning process would be recorded and judges would still travel to detention centers to personally meet defendants when necessary, the official said.

The Supreme People’s Court rejected 15 percent of the death penalties it reviewed in 2007, citing poor evidence and procedural errors.

Chinese courts also for the first time handed down more suspended death sentences, usually commuted to life imprisonment on condition of good behavior, than outright executions last year. The results have been welcomed by legals scholars.

Rights groups say China executes thousands of people a year, more than any other country. But the government says it has no plan to abolish capital punishment and the majority of the public supports death penalty as a deterrent to serious crime.

Reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Guo Shipeng

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