Last Thursday’s hastily orchestrated murder trial of Gu Kailai, the wife of the ousted Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai, has raised several questions that cast serious doubt on the case.
It appears that the trial, which lasted eight hours, was a sham and Ms. Gu was made a scapegoat in a broader political power struggle between her husband and top leaders like Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao.
During the trial, Ms. Gu confessed to murdering her British business partner, Neil Heywood; she said she was willing to “accept and calmly face sentencing” and that she expected the court to give her a “fair and just verdict.”
After combing through leaked court proceedings and official news reports and interviewing two of the 140 people carefully selected by the Chinese government to attend the trial, I have identified a dozen important legal problems that were ignored or omitted during the trial and that might have resulted in either a dismissal of charges or acquittal, if the defense had been allowed to address them properly.
1 Gu Kailai had been officially given a diagnosis of manic depression and moderate schizophrenia by court-appointed medical experts. The indictment is largely based on Ms. Gu’s confession. Without any corroborating witness accounts, how do we know her memory was reliable and that her mental illness did not affect criminal intent?
2 The motivation for the murder was not clear. The prosecution stated that Ms. Gu hatched the plot to kill Mr. Heywood when she was told that he had detained and kidnapped her son in Britain after their business deal soured. The only evidence shown in court was an early November e-mail from Mr. Heywood, who wrote to Ms. Gu’s son, Bo Guagua, “You will be destroyed.” But by then, her son was already in the United States, studying at Harvard.
3 The indictment said that Ms. Gu had illegally obtained rat poison. Is there proof that she actually did? From whom did she get it? And did the rat poison contain cyanide?
4 Was there cyanide in Mr. Heywood’s body? Ms. Gu admitted getting him drunk and then giving him water laced with cyanide after getting him drunk. However, the initial forensic report, according to the defense, displayed no primary signs of cyanide poisoning. A CT scan performed on the victim’s body before it was cremated and an initial blood test found no traces of cyanide.
5 According to Ms. Gu’s defense, Mr. Heywood had a family history of cardiovascular disease. Since he was not a heavy drinker, could it be possible that he died naturally of a heart attack induced by excessive drinking?
6 According to the prosecution, the chief investigator took another blood sample, which later became a crucial piece of evidence after Mr. Heywood’s body had been cremated. However, the chief investigator carried that blood sample home without permission. Four months later, tests on the second blood sample showed cyanide, the amount of which was, by coincidence, just enough to kill a person. Is there any evidence that the integrity of that blood sample was safeguarded during that four-month period?
7 Was there a struggle before Mr. Heywood’s death? Ms. Gu said that Mr. Heywood was dead before she left the room, his head resting on a pillow. When the police discovered Mr. Heywood’s body two days later, however, he was lying flat on the bed, and the mattress showed signs of having been rolled on. Considering this evidence, a criminal expert I interviewed believes that Mr. Heywood was probably not killed by cyanide, which tends to kill quickly, or there was not sufficient poison to kill him right away and that Mr. Heywood was actually still alive when Ms. Gu left the room.
8 According to the defense, after Ms. Gu left the crime scene, strangers’ footprints were found on the balcony, but there were no signs of a break-in. Why has the court not investigated where these footprints came from?
9 The prosecution claimed to have collected 394 witness testimonies, but the trial was conducted without the direct participation and cross-examinations of key witnesses, including Wang Lijun, the Chongqing police chief, who fled to the United States consulate there and personally brought the case to light. Ms. Gu picked her defense lawyer from a list provided by the government a month before the trial. For such an important case, why was the lawyer given only a short period of time to study the case? And why didn’t the defense lawyer have a chance to question key witnesses during the trial?
10 There was no explicit mention of Gu Kailai’s husband in the indictment. When Ms. Gu learned that Mr. Heywood was threatening her son, wouldn’t she tell her husband, the local party boss? Was Bo Xilai involved in the plotting of the murder?
11 After the Chongqing police had ruled that Mr. Heywood died of a heart attack from excessive alcohol consumption, Ms. Gu successfully persuaded the Heywood family to agree to a quick cremation without an autopsy. Did Ms. Gu or the Chongqing government pay money in exchange for the family’s silence?
12 The indictment pointed out that Ms. Gu and Mr. Heywood teamed up in 2005 with a senior manager at a Chinese state-run enterprise in several real estate deals in Chongqing and in France. If successful, Mr. Heywood would have been awarded £140 million. But the deals fell apart. Mr. Heywood demanded 10 percent of the original amount as compensation. There were no explanations of what the projects were, why the deal failed and what Mr. Heywood’s role was. According to a source in Beijing, Mr. Bo, who was transferred to Chongqing in 2007, halted the projects for fear that the deals could jeopardize his political future. If that proves to be true, could it be that the prosecution hid these details, which might contradict claims by the government-controlled media that Mr. Bo was a corrupt official?
Ms. Gu and her family may have intentionally refrained from mounting a vigorous defense against the murder charges and decided to strike a deal with the government because she understood that the trial’s real target was her husband — whom senior party leaders in Beijing are hoping to render guilty by association and destroy for good.
If she had fought against the murder charges, the Bo family’s political foes would have initiated corruption charges, which could also be punishable by death. In China today, corruption is so rampant that no government official is immune, and if such charges were made, her son, her husband and many of her friends could be implicated. Between the two, perhaps the murder charge seemed the better deal.
By actively cooperating with the government — she confessed to the crime and implicated the police chief and his assistants — Ms. Gu aimed to get her potential death sentence commuted.
As the Chinese saying goes, “As long as the green hills last, there will always be wood to feed the stove.” In Ms. Gu’s case, keeping her life and shielding her husband from criminal prosecution leaves open the possibility of a comeback when the political winds shift. Ms. Gu’s father-in-law, Bo Yibo, was branded a traitor during the Cultural Revolution, beaten, paraded around and locked up in a prison where he was often deprived of food and water. Three years after Mao Zedong died, the case against Bo Yibo was overturned. He was reinstated by the new leadership as the vice premier of China and lived to age 99, outliving most of his foes.
Given the complexities of the case and the tremendous amount of media attention, one would have assumed that the Chinese government would take the case seriously or at least attempt to honor due process. Unfortunately, the trial was conducted hastily and shabbily, exposing the ugliness of the Chinese legal system. One can only imagine the fate of the thousands of faceless or nameless Chinese who are being judged by the legal system without any media attention.
Ms. Gu’s verdict will be decided by party leaders in Beijing, rather than judges in court. Rushing to justify the ousting of Mr. Bo, who was a strong contender for a spot on the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, helps leaders in Beijing clear a major hurdle before the leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress later this year. Therefore, the Chinese government will most likely give Ms. Gu a harsh sentence. But the fundamental legal questions have not even been asked, let alone answered.
Ho Pin, a New York-based publisher of Chinese-language magazines and books, is the author of a forthcoming book on the Bo Xilai case. This essay was translated by Wenguang Huang from the Chinese.