Wednesday, January 20 2021


Wrongful convictions must be stamped out

Update: August, 18/2016 - 15:15
Trần Văn Thêm was cleared of murder charge after 24 years at the age of 81. — Photo
Viet Nam News

by Thu Vân

Nothing is worse than being convicted of a crime you didn’t commit.

Not only is your freedom taken away, sometimes your life, it can also hurt your loved ones unimaginably.

Last week, an 81-year-old man was cleared of murder after having carried the “title” for 44 years.

Trần Văn Thêm, 81, of northern Bắc Ninh Province’s Yên Phụ Commune, who was charged with murdering his cousin 44 years ago was declared innocent and received a public apology from judicial agencies. They also said he will be compensated.

But would any compensation really compensate for what he and his family went through?

Thêm was sentenced to death in 1973 for killing his cousin, but then in 1975 another suspect was arrested and confessed to the crime. Thêm was released, however, no announcement regarding his wrongful conviction was issued.

For years, Thêm and his relatives sought justice, he even wrote letters with his blood, but was ignored by multiple agencies as he had no official documents related to the case. In 2006, the local judiciary said that the case file had been lost as the incident occurred during the war in the 1970s.

With the help of his lawyer and witnesses, Thêm retrieved the case documents from the Bắc Ninh Department of Police in 2014.

By the time he was declared innocent, Thêm’s wife had passed away. The relationship between Thêm and his cousin’s family broke down. 

On the day that the judicial agencies apologised to Thêm, they also said that they had quickly tackled the case at the time and that they had worked hard and wholeheartedly for the sake of the people.

There was no “quick intervention” over the last 44 years. There was no “wholehearted” approach to rectifying the mistake. 

Thêm’s case is not the only example.

In 2013, Nguyễn Thanh Chấn from Bắc Giang Province was released after 10 years if imprisonment for murder. He was cleared of the charge when the real culprit confessed.

When Chấn came home, his wife was close to paralyzed, forcing their three kids to quit school and work to keep the family afloat. In an interview with a local newspaper, Chấn’s wife said for a long time she ate only bread and water.

In another case, Huỳnh Văn Nén served 17 years in jail because of a wrongful murder conviction before he was released last year. His mother died before his release day. His kids also couldn’t go to school anymore.

These innocent prisoners all wrote hundreds of letters before anybody took notice or only did when the real culprits showed up. How many innocent defendants have judges and relevant agencies ignored?

If those who are supposed to enforce justice can’t provide justice, or fail to see their mistakes, and if they fail to improve their work, we can’t expect justice for anyone. If they still want to praise themselves in such embarrassing cases instead of taking responsibility, we can’t expect justice.

According to a report presented to the NA Standing Committee in 2015, from 2013 to 2015, 71 cases were identified as wrongful verdicts, mostly involving murders, robbery, and rape. The report also pointed out that 260 people died in this three-year period during the investigation and detention process.

Head of the NA Committee on Judicial Affairs Nguyễn Văn Hiện, when speaking at a NA session last year, blamed the large number of wrongful convictions on limited competence among investigators and judges and the wish to complete a case quickly.

“Sometimes, investigators and judges quickly believe the declaration of a suspect without careful, objective and thorough study of evidence. Some judges and prosecutors also focus too much on the documents of the case without developing debates and arguments in court,” Hiện said.

These weaknesses are unacceptable. Wrongful convictions happen everywhere, even in countries with advanced judicial systems. But efforts must be made to not let those with limited competence and integrity work in the judicial system, because a wrongful conviction is also a crime – a crime that takes away the chance to raise kids, the right to live, a crime that breaks families, a crime that leaves unspeakable sufferings.

While Thêm can finally have a good nights sleep, there are still those who can’t.

Trần Văn Vót, 67, has been in jail for 24 years and has always proclaimed his innocence. In 1984, Vót was sentenced to life in jail for four crimes, one being murder. The father of the victim spent years seeking justice for Vót. The father said he believed Vót had not killed his son. And while he and his family had sent many letters to relevant agencies, they received no answer.

NA deputies Nguyễn Lân Dũng and Trần Thị Quốc Khánh have called for Vót’s release as he is suffering from severe sickness after 24 years in jail.

We can only hope that officials’ promises to improve the judicial system are honest, we can hope no forced confession will be made, the presumption of innocence will prevail and judicial officers will try to listen.

Hopefully, Vót, who is 67, will live to see the day he is proclaimed innocent.--VNS


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