FUZHOU, China — Hope is rare in China’s courts.
This is a country where 99.9 percent of suspects are found guilty. Where authorities put to death more convicted criminals each year than the rest of the world’s countries combined.
A major reason so few are found innocent and so many are wrongfully convicted: forced confessions.
That’s how Nian Bin, a grocery owner from a small fishing island, ended up admitting eight years ago to a crime he says he did not commit.
Nian said police bound his hands and hung him from a window. They jammed slivers of bamboo between his ribs, tied books around his stomach to prevent bruising and took turns whaling on him with a hammer. The pain grew so intense that he bit down hard on his tongue in hopes he could sever it and die from bleeding or choking.
Then the officers threatened to interrogate his wife.
That’s when he agreed to confess to poisoning his neighbors and killing their two children.
It would take four trials, three appeals and a review by China’s Supreme People’s Court during the next eight years for Nian to claw his way back from the realm of the 99.9 percent. But this fall, he became one of the few to ever cross that chasm and escape execution.
The victory by his legal team, which had spent years punching holes in the prosecutor’s case, was seen as a landmark — a rare instance that proved that evidence could trump confession in Chinese courts. It points to surprising reforms underway in the justice system, legal experts said.
But it has also prompted deep doubts about how real or lasting those changes could be. Because even though he is finally free, no one, including Nian, knows how long it will last.
The numbness lingers in his hands.
Like most prisoners on death row, Nian remained cuffed at all times — hands bound by a chain to his shackled feet for years. To eat, he lowered his face to a bowl like a dog, and he relied on inmates with lesser sentences to brush his teeth, put on his clothes and clean him after he used the toilet.
The raw pain in his cuffed hands kept him up most nights.
“I came to fear the mornings,” he said, when guards would whisk inmates away for execution. “Because I would wait each day not knowing if I would see the sun.”
Nian’s neighbors died July 27, 2006, on the small fishing island of Pingtan on China’s southern coast, where Nian, now 38, ran a small grocery stall.
That afternoon, his landlord and her daughter, together with the family of Ding Yunxia — who ran a grocery store next to Nian’s — shared a meal of porridge along with a dish of squid.
Within hours, the four children in the group fell violently ill. By morning, the two youngest, ages 8 and 10, were dead.
After days of fruitless investigation, police took Nian in for interrogation. Twenty-four hours later, they announced that they had cracked the case.
According to the indictment, Nian had poisoned the porridge out of revenge, because a customer had bought a pack of cigarettes from Ding instead of Nian.
Police said Nian sneaked into Ding’s apartment and poured rat poison into the kettle later used to cook the porridge.
After the police announcement, outraged relatives of the dead children ransacked Nian’s home. Nian’s parents, wife and 4-year-old son fled so quickly that their laundry was left spinning in the washing machine.
But the police account made no sense to his sister, Nian Jianlan.
Within their family of eight brothers and sisters, Nian Bin was the most pious, his sister said. The idea of family was sacred. When two brothers died, it was Nian Bin who went to their father’s house night after night for years just to help the old man fall asleep.
She and Nian Bin were the youngest and closest of the siblings, so she took charge of his legal defense.
An accountant for a chemical company, Jianlan had no legal experience. But she was stubborn and creative, and over the next eight years, she and the legal team she assembled would unearth a trove of hidden reports and evidence.
The Washington Post examined more than 2,000 pages of forensic reports, witness testimony and other court documents from Nian’s case, and more than four hours of interrogation videos and 300 crime scene photos.
In pursuit of her brother’s case, Jianlan, 40, eventually gave up her job, as well as any prospect of getting married and starting a family.
“This case became my life,” she said.
The first lawyer she hired immediately spotted small holes in the police case: Nian, in his forced confession, described a man who sold him the poison, but in court the police produced someone who looked entirely different. And it turned out that he didn’t sell the type of poison allegedly used.
But that was not enough. The court convicted Nian in 2008 and issued the first of four death sentences he would receive.
The defense had been hamstrung, the way most criminal defendants are in China.
Police had total control over the evidence. Authorities did not share any forensic reports, witness interviews or physical evidence that did not bolster their case. The defense could not cross-examine Nian’s investigators. Even if his lawyer had been able to find independent forensic experts, they would not have been able to see the evidence or testify.
As for the forced confession — the foundation of the case — Nian’s first lawyer never challenged it directly, saying only that police had not followed “standard procedure.”
The weak phrasing was perhaps out of fear. Although confessions obtained by torture have been officially banned since 1979, lawyers can be reluctant to challenge them. In one instance, a lawyer who accused Chongqing police of torturing his client was later sentenced to more than two years for perjury.
After her brother’s conviction, Jianlan went to Beijing, determined to find a better lawyer. In looking up other death row cases, she found Zhang Yansheng.
A 60-year-old former judge and past director of criminal defense for the Beijing Lawyers Association, Zhang talks in fast, clipped sentences that favor a strong cause-and-effect logic.
“And I thought as a woman she might understand what I’m going through,” Jianlan said.
Over the course of Nian’s case, the relationship between them would evolve from attorney-client to something more akin to mother-daughter.
Zhang stopped charging the family after the first year. Instead, she persuaded almost 30 lawyers and several forensic experts to join their cause, nearly all pro bono.
“It became a matter of ethics,” Zhang said. “If we didn’t continue the case, nobody would.”
Zhang discovered deep flaws in the investigation.
Not everyone who ate the porridge fell sick that night, Zhang found. But everyone who ate the squid did.
There was a suspicious lack of detail in descriptions of the police test for poison, as well as poor documentation of evidence seized from the crime scene.
There were other contradictions as well. But the biggest difference in Zhang’s approach to the case was tactical: She aggressively challenged the confession.
After obtaining video copies of Nian’s four-hour interrogation, Zhang found an obvious gap. At first, Nian is largely silent, refusing to answer questions. Then just before the 11-minute mark, the tape jumps. The camera angle changes. Nian looks like he’s been crying, and he suddenly talks readily about plotting to kill the others.
Interrogation logs, Zhang found, suggested a two-hour gap. That, Nian said, is when officers threatened his wife. Police declined to answer questions about Nian, his interrogation and the case.
Zhang’s efforts won Nian a retrial, but that wasn’t enough.
The problem with such retrials, critics say, is that often they are conducted by the same court that tried the case originally. To overturn a guilty verdict would do irreparable harm to the careers of the judges, prosecutors and police who secured it — scuttling chances for promotion and exposing them to possible punishment.
As appeal after appeal failed, death for Nian appeared imminent.
It felt like time itself had become his chief warden and torturer, he said. He would lie awake at night wishing he could reach out and somehow stop its progress.
When he did sleep, he dreamed of what death would look like, how it would feel.
His father had died while he was in prison. His mother would soon follow. With nothing encouraging left to say, his sister sent Nian a Bible.
Nian, who never finished elementary school, read it constantly — turning the pages awkwardly with his cuffed hands — until the cover became worn and shredded.
“It helped me believe that life could go on,” he said, “and that I could face it.”
Unknown to Nian, outside the prison walls, growing pressure was prompting China’s legal authorities to consider reforms for the first time in decades.
Two cases in particular had deeply embarrassed them. In both, murder convictions had to be thrown out after the supposed victims turned up alive more than a decade later. And confessions extracted through torture were key in both. (In the most recent example, China this month publicly admitted that it wrongfully executed a teenager convicted of rape and murder 18 years ago.)
With criticism accumulating, authorities issued a new policy requiring the Supreme People’s Court to review all death sentences. That saved Nian’s life in 2010, when the court granted him another retrial.
Revisions to criminal procedure last year also allowed Nian’s lawyers for the first time to question police in court and call independent forensic scientists as witnesses.
Those new avenues gave Zhang a chance to attack the forced confession and undermine key evidence against Nian.
Her team unearthed contradictory police statements and proof that police had suspected someone else. They found suppressed testimony that the allegedly poisoned kettle had not been used to make the porridge.
Then on July 3, 2013 — the day before Nian’s final appeal before the Fujian High Court — the police handed over 26 spectrometer slides they had previously withheld. The slides had been cited as proof that fluoroacetate poison was in the kettle water as well as in the victims’ vomit, hearts and urine.
Nian’s lawyers scrambled to get experts to examine the slides with less than 24 hours before the hearing. The experts found problems with methodology but no conclusive evidence exonerating Nian.
After four days, the high court adjourned with no verdict.
Six months later, still awaiting a verdict, Zhang called Nian’s sister with a crazy idea. What if, as a last-ditch effort, they took the spectrometer slides to experts abroad? Perhaps someone in international forensics would catch something local experts had missed.
Jianlan suggested Hong Kong. The former British colony was home to respected experts who could read the Chinese reports. There, they looked up a retired chemist who they hoped could help. He refused to see them but said they could leave the reports at his office.
Within days, the scientist sent word. He needed to see them right away.
He had found their smoking gun.
Mok King-kuen told them he had noticed something strange in two of the spectrometer graphs — one analyzing the blood from a victim’s heart and another from the same victim’s vomit. They had been derived from the same sample, as if police had used a single test and just slapped different names and labels on both.
Even more telling, he found several reports analyzing spectrometer findings that were dated before the tests were even performed, suggesting that police had simply forged test results to support their conclusions.
At a brief hearing this fall, the high court announced its decision. It cleared Nian of all charges and ordered his release from prison.
When the guards opened the shackles on his hands, Nian grabbed his sister in his arms and shouted his innocence to the sky, in hopes his deceased father would hear.
It was a remarkable ruling. There were no murder victims returning from the dead, nor was there incontrovertible DNA evidence — another rare but emerging source of overturned rulings.
Instead, Nian’s lawyers proved that simple evidence, logic and forensic expertise could defeat the usually unassailable confession-based conviction.
But legal scholars and human rights advocates caution against reading too much into Nian’s case.
“Look at what was required,” said Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It took a family willing to persevere for years, a lawyer willing to stand up to considerable pressure and an environment where China’s leaders were eager prove their new rules are effective.”
While parts of the legal system are changing slowly, many legal activists think it is largely superficial reform, aimed not in pursuit of justice but at quelling distrust and anger at the ruling Communist Party.
In Nian’s case, proof of the system’s enduring capacity for injustice came last month.
After his application for a passport was denied, Nian discovered that police had launched a new investigation this fall into the murders, just weeks after freeing him. Nian again was the prime suspect. And because no double-jeopardy laws exist in China, he could easily be arrested and convicted again.
His sister has already reassembled the legal team.
“This time around could be bad,” Jianlan said this month, “because we have now humiliated police and exposed their wrongdoing.”
In a counteroffensive, Nian’s team filed a lawsuit last week against the government seeking damages for Nian’s wrongful imprisonment and demanding that the police who tortured and forged evidence against him be prosecuted.
Marine biologists recently contacted Nian’s lawyers with a provocative new lead — that the squid the victims ate along with the porridge may have contained a naturally occurring toxin.
Relatives of the two dead children, however — having seen footage of Nian’s confession — remain convinced he is guilty.
“He did it. There’s no other possibility,” the children’s mother, Ding, said in a phone interview. The thought of Nian living free while her two children are dead is unbearable, she said, and she won’t rest until he is convicted again.
As for Nian, life on the outside has been a hell of its own.
He struggles with uncontrollable outbursts of anger, even at his sister, who has sacrificed so much to free him. He panics at the sound of iron gates opening and cannot stand the sight or touch of steel. His relationship with his son lies in tatters. Having spent most of his life without a father, his son, now 12, refuses to call him “Dad.”
His sister and Zhang recently took Nian to doctors, who diagnosed him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. But the family cannot afford treatment. A psychologist in Hong Kong has offered to treat Nian free of charge, but he is not allowed to leave China as long as he remains a suspect.
“My body has left prison, but my mind has not,” Nian said recently, his hands still clutching a Bible. “You have to give me an explanation. You can’t just lock me up for eight years with no reason. I need the truth. Without it, I cannot find peace.”
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.