Mental Illness & Criminal Cases

Xiewei Liu and China's Mental laws

Born in 1934, Xiewei Liu is a psychiatrist and the former director of Psychiatry at the Jiangsu Province Mental Health Center in Wuxi City. For decades, he has been committed to spreading awareness of the rights of criminals with mental illness. Having handled more than 30 cases, he was the first to put forward the Crazy Robbery Theory: that criminal suspects should be entitled to a scientific and forensic psychiatric assessment to test their sanity.

The Journey from Hatred to Forgiveness

Although Xiewei’s work on behalf of the criminally insane has been written about online in news reports, the topic is controversial. This is largely due to the debate in China over morality and the law. In every case, Xiewei must take into account both the legal and moral aspects. Although retired, he continues to be involved in many high-profile criminal cases, including that of Jiajue Ma, who murdered four of his roommates in the province of Yunan; Xinghua Qiu, who murdered 10 people including a child in the county of Hanyin in Shaanxi; and Jijin Wang, who used his car to kill people in Nanjing. Xiewei believes each of these criminals showed signs of psychopathic behavior and each should have been given a forensic psychiatric assessment to determine their sanity.

According to Article 18 of China’s criminal law, “A mental patient shall not be held criminally responsible if he or she is unable to recognize or control his or her behavior, and if he or she­­ is identified and confirmed by legal procedures, he or she shall not be held criminally responsible.” However, starting this legal procedure is extremely difficult. The family of the accused can apply, but the final decision is left in the hands of the judiciary. Dr. Xiewei has filed appeals in many important cases hoping the accused will be given a forensic psychiatric identification assessment, but most often his requests are denied.

A Desperate Call

On July 17th, 2016, 82-year-old Xiewei and his over 70-year-old wife, Mei Jin Liu, hastily ate lunch and headed to the Wuxi train station, where they bought two high-speed train tickets to Shanghai. Upon arrival in Shanghai, they quickly boarded a plane to Shijiazhuang. They brought little with them: a small amount of cash, emergency medicine and basic essentials.

Arriving at 2:00 a.m. on July 18th in Shijiazhuang, the couple stayed at a local hotel, where Xiewei’s wife repeatedly made sure her husband’s asthma was under control. They made the 1000-mile journey in only half a day due to an urgent call they’d received the day before from a woman in Canada whose younger brother was suspected of murder. She said her brother’s behavior during the crime was so strange that her family believed he was mentally ill. But when he was given the psychiatric identification assessment at Hebei Medical University, doctors concluded he was not mentally ill. Could Xiewei, she asked, examine her brother’s case files and determine whether he was mentally ill?

“If you weren’t desperate, you wouldn’t have contacted me,” said the psychiatrist. “If I can help then I will try.” Typically, Xiewei would be paid between 10,000 to 20,000 yuan (roughly $1500 to $3000), but he only asked to be reimbursed for his travel fees. He was pleased to return to his old line of work even after his retirement, but the opportunity to observe a detained suspect in China is very rare. Normally, he would have to cull clues and find evidence from news reports to build a case for a psychiatric assessment.

Early the next morning, Xiewei read the suspect’s case files, met with each party’s lawyer and watched video footage of the crime. It showed the suspect stabbing two victims multiple times, including their faces. But what appeared strange thereafter was the suspect’s behavior. Instead of immediately fleeing the crime scene, he
lingered for a period of time before walking away.

According Xiewei, “This is what is known as ‘remaining murder’ and it is the ‘returning to the ancestral animal syndrome.’ Xiewei explained under normal circumstances, in what is known as “intentional homicide,” the murderer does not repeat meaningless actions, as a criminal’s first natural reaction is to escape from the crime scene. This was something the suspect did not do. He instead displayed signs of ‘returning to the ancestral animal syndrome.’ This is a serious mental illness, Xiewei explained, in which the victim cannot think independently, just like a wild animal whose behavior is unpredictable. Xiewei first presented this concept in 2006 during the Xinghua Qiu murder case, which caused controversy. Some were outraged by the idea, while others found it plausible.

Xiewei followed the trial closely. “When the suspect was questioned in court, he could not say anything nor defend himself but instead kept repeating things that could be used against him.” The suspect’s family said he had been diagnosed with depression prior to the incident and had been on anti-depressants. Based on Xiewei’s observations, he proposed that a second psychiatric identification test be done. “The second trial has just ended,” said Xiewei. “I am unsure of the results, but I am not very optimistic.” After a long delay and still no news, Xiewei is feeling helpless and anxious about the case.

High-Profile Cases

Xiewei often takes the initiative to help prisoners who are on death row, such as the infamous case of Jiajue Ma, who murdered his roommates at Yunnan University in 2004.

“After the crime, we might make the assumption that Jiajue is a disturbed person, even though we have not met him. However, upon meeting him in person, we realized he is reserved, quiet and a good student,” said Xiewei. “When experts examined his files and discussed his case, they concluded that Jiajue did suffer from a mental illness, but they didn’t know which one.”

In the eyes of Xiewei and fellow psychiatric experts Desen Yang and Xiehe Liu, Jiajue’s symptoms were obvious: “After the murder, he left the corpses in his closet and proceeded to nap and rest. During his trial, he can be seen displaying various types of funny faces. Based on these behaviors, they suspected he was suffering from schizophrenia.” Xiewei can still remember Jiajue’s sister crying and pleading to her younger sibling during the trial, “Brother, you must fight for an appeal!” But Jiajue decided not to appeal. “He felt he was not worthy of life after murdering others and completely lost his ability to protect himself,” said Xiewei. Because Jiajue had no idea how to save himself, his first trial ended quickly, and he was convicted and executed.

For the 2006 case of Xinghua Qiu, Xiewei spent the longest time away from home. Xinghua, a 47-year-old farmer suffering from delusions, was charged with murdering ten people, one of whom was only12 years old, at a Taoist temple in Shaanxi Province. He even cut out the heart of one of the Taoist monks, fried it, and then fed it to a dog. After burning the temple, Xinghua fled the scene. When Xiewei read the case files, he suspected Xinghua suffered from paranoid psychosis, and this speculation coincided with Dr. Liu Xiehe’s diagnosis of “delusions of jealousy”. The day before the first trial started marked the 34th day in which Xiewei had been staying in Beijing on his own dime.

A Difficult Job

Xiewei was just three when his father was killed during the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese troops in 1937, leaving his mother and six siblings

check this out

to experience many hardships. He was in high school when the Korean War broke out and entered the army. He was assigned to Shenyang China Medical University where he served as Party branch secretary. Due to his excellent academics, he was assigned to the Shanghai Second Military Medical University in 1956, where he served as a lieutenant. Originally thinking it was a good opportunity, he was later labeled a rightist within the party, and from Shanghai was reassigned to the remote Guangxi region in 1957. This was the reason he and his girlfriend of six years broke up. In Guangxi, Xiewei taught himself architecture, began designing mental hospitals and later met his current wife, Meijin Liu.

In the early 1960s, Xiewei and a handful of others became the first batch of China’s forensic doctors. “Our method is still too simple,” he admits. “The current rate of misdiagnoses is 10 percent. There are no objective standards nor avant-garde scientific and technological means, so it is difficult to identify whether a person is suffering from mental illness.” The industry is still improving. Those hospitalized with mental illness must be evaluated in three steps before a diagnosis is confirmed: first by the resident, then the attending physician and lastly the hospital director. For difficult cases, an expert is consulted. Because of the limited time given for these forensic psychiatric assessments to take place, only a short meeting is held. “I think it should be a hospitalized observation, at least half month or a month,” asserts Xiewei.

“Now, most of the medical history is collected through public security. This is not very professional. “ In 1983, Xiewei returned to Jiangsu to work for Wuxi Seventh People’s Hospital and later transferred to Wuxi Mental Health Center.

After Xiewei retired, he met occasionally with the hospital’s president, who told him every year there are 1000 cases of psychiatric forensic identification, and each earns the hospital barely 4700 yuan ($700). This amount is far less than what is required, because employees must work overtime, and the price of labor is high. Psychiatric forensics is a division within mental hospitals everywhere, and the industry is currently in a confused state. “Sometimes forensic scientists can do psychiatric forensics, but psychiatry is complex, and their knowledge is far from enough. Only psychiatrists with years of clinical experience are competent,” explains Xiewei.

In Guangxi, Xiewei has done more than 30 forensic psychiatric assessments. He is a member of the National Research for the Assessment of Criminal Responsibility for Persons with Mental Disabilities. This task force is composed of two groups: the Ministry of Justice and an older generation of psychiatry experts. “Our work is difficult to do: very complex, very difficult, very esoteric, very sensitive, while also very serious,” said Xiewei.

Jijin Wang crashed his BMW into a Mazda at 120 miles per hours, killing two people. Nanjing’s mental hospital diagnosed Jijin with acute transient mental disorder. The diagnosis sparked outrage and doubt, especially online. Many claimed the experts took extra money and made up the results. Later, I did some research and read at many reports. I found out that at 13, Jijin became sick and over a 22-year period, he suffered two or three relapses. He appeared to suffer from a chronic illness rather than an acute short-term illness. Xiewei concluded that he very likely did suffer from a mental illness and that he is not fully responsible for the crime.

To receive insults online was no surprise to Xiewei. As in Xinghua’s high-profile case, the same abuse and hate occurred. Because Xiewei insisted that Xinghua was mentally ill and that his criminal responsibility was limited, his “return to the animal beast syndrome” is not recognized by everyone. Some believe Xiewei is helping the murderer or that he received a payout for the diagnosis.

“About three to five percent of people on the Internet scolded me, but I would smile and say that I am always willing to be their guide,” said Xiewei. He considers himself like a guide dog to these people, in that he “guides” the illiterate, those who don’t understand law and cannot help themselves. He says he simply helps the accused fight for the right to a forensic psychiatric assessment and no personal feelings are involved, after all “humanism is humanitarianism.”

Although he rarely meets with success in these cases, Xiewei says he cannot give up if there is even a remote possibility of success. In Xinghua’s case, his defense lawyer did not even start the application process for a Psychiatric assessment. When Xiewei questioned the lawyer, he replied, “I cannot dare go against the world,” even though the experts had all agreed that his client should be tested. During the final hearing, the courts dismissed the request and maintained their position to have the death penalty. Xinghua was executed near the Jiangbei River in Ankang. An expert commented, “When there is intense anger from the public and the military, and the police have been hurt, there is very little possibility of doing a psychiatric test, so Xinghua’s death was inevitable. There was really only one reason: to appease the public’s anger and pain.”

“Many people say that I am nosy and that my views face resistance by many people,” says Xiewei. In addition to the public’s questioning, the doctor has also been pressured by those at the “top” to change his views. During his stay in Guangxi, a demobilized soldier killed a local petition director, and Xiewei identified the soldier as suffering from a mental illness. One of the health ministers, who is a good friend, said Xiewei was “defending murderers and had lost the morals the Communist Party of China hold important, and needs to be saved.” He also wished that Xiewei would “come to his senses,” to which he replied, “I cannot say and go against what I believe is true, which is that the soldier suffers from a mental illness. My decision will not change.”

The deputy director of the hospital also tried to persuade Xiewei to change his views several times. But Xiewei refused, saying “It would be easy to change now, but if it is brought up later then it will become a problem and will be my responsibility. We are dealing with someone else’s life.

“I have visited many of the suspects’ families, in which the suspects all suffered from mental illnesses, and they are all very pitiful,” Xiwei says. “Jiajue’s father has built a wall around his house and is completely isolated from the outside world, because when he goes out people say to him that his son is a murderer. Jiajue’s sister cried, saying she would rather be dead than alive. Her husband calls her brother a killer and is abusive to her. Her husband’s mother, whom she cares for, is paralyzed, and if something is done wrong, her husband is violent toward her. She has lost her job, and there is nothing left for her. She has no hope left.”

Xiewei continues: “We are not only concerned about the rights of mental patients, but the victims of these cases are equally pitiful. Usually the victim’s family tries to find a way to get the offender the death sentence. This is vengeance, for they want the suspect’s family to suffer the same.” In Jinji’s case, Xiewei not only comforted his family but also the victims’ families, but he told them he understands that they lost their son, and it is a disaster, but they need to be mentally prepared. After the results of a psychological exam are known, it may show that Jinji is suffering from a mental illness and will likely not be sentenced to death. The victim’s family replied, “Who can accept such a result? Let’s see after the results do come out, then we can talk.”

The Crazy Robbery Theory

Xiewei Liu would repeatedly tell the families of the victims that the sick cannot control what they are doing, hoping to get their forgiveness. He pioneered the “Crazy Robbery” theory: mentally ill patients are like robbers but with no control over their actions.

A film of the same name, directed by Ann Hui and starred Zhao Yazhi, inspired this theory. In the film, Zhao’s character’s 14-year-old grandson calls him “crazy robbery Grandpa,” and Xiewei is always talking about it.

“Crazy robbery can be summed up in five phrases: there are the mentally ill; mental illnesses cannot be faked; those who pretend cannot get far; those with mental illnesses don’t live long; and they receive unjust deaths.”

Xiewei sometimes analyzes important historical figures. For example, the former national committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Practice (CPPCC), Weibing Yan, wrote an anonymous letter to Biao Lin, a communist general. In the letter, Weibing wrote that Biao is a ticking time bomb lying beside Chairman Mao. Biao became angry and traced the letter back to Weibing. Biao then started to cause trouble for Weibing’s husband, Dingyi Lu. Eventually, Weibing was found to be suffering from a mental illness.

Xiewei often talks about the sciences and the difference between medical neuropathy and neuropathy: medical neuropathy is inflammation of the nervous system. Xiaoping is suffering from a disease of the nervous system, secondary neurological disorders, including neurasthenia, phobia, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and so on.

Apart from homicide, suicide is another result of mental illness. Xiewei’s eldest daughter was a fan of Leslie Cheung, a pop entertainer who committed suicide in 2003. “The world thought Leslie’s suicide was the result of depression; in fact, it was due to delusions,” says Xiewei. Once in Hong Kong, he said the entertainer was suffering from delusions when he revealed he thought someone was trying to harm him. But he also suffered from many of the symptoms of depression. “Depression may cause someone to jump off a building, but not all suicides from jumping off a building are caused by depression,” said Xiewei.

In another case, “Southern Weekend” reporter Chai Hui brought his colleagues with him for Xiewei’s for medical assistance. Getu Chao arrived and started engaging in normal conversation with Xiewei, but afterwards he went to a balcony for a smoke. This is where his behaviour seemed abnormal: he put his hot cigarette butt into his mouth and then left his slippers on top the bathroom counter in the main bedroom instead of leaving them by the door.

Later, when Xiewei was in the US visiting his daughter, he received a phone call from Chai Huai, saying that Getu Chao had committed suicide. Xiewei’s first reaction was to ask, “Which floor did he jump from?” He was told the 20th floor, which told Xiewei how much the patient wanted to die. “People say he was depressed, but obviously not if he eats cigarette butts and puts shoes in weird places,” said Xiewei. “He probably thought there was an enemy who was trying to harm him.”

Because his youngest daughter studied in the US, Xiewei has visited six times. At the time of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, when a Korean student named Cho Seung-hui killed 33 people and then committed suicide, Xiewei was visiting and saw the news reports. He concluded that Cho had a mental illness, which was later proven correct. He still remembers the aftermath of the incident clearly, when then Senator Hillary Clinton said at a memorial service: “When he needed medical treatment, we failed to lend a helping hand in time, he is also the victim and deserves our compassion.”

As to how society as a whole should pardon these offenders, Xiewei recommends a public safety maintenance center be established. He says: “As early as 1843, the McNaughton Rule, also known as the defense of insanity, was established in foreign countries. But we are nearly 200 years behind.” Chai Hui-chun wrote in a report: “Although the appeal for criminal immunity for mental patients has been going on many years, in most influential cases, Xiewei so far has not had any successful cases.”

Xiewei is known as a “hero with a tragic fate.” Although his efforts may not get the desired result, he is first and foremost a humanitarian. He not only seeks help for the mentally ill but for victim’s families as well. Between the two, he believes there must be some balance and peace for both families. “Our people should be more tolerant,” said Xiewei, as he smiled and put down the files in his hands.

In the end, Minsheng Zheng, Jiajue Ma and Xinghua Qiu were sentenced to death. The courts ruled that even if the psychiatric forensic assessments had been done, they would not constitute enough proof to grant any of them criminal immunity. Although these cases failed to gain social acceptance and support, the public should consider how to improve the current mental patient criminal laws and how to work on preventing such cases in the future.

check this out

by Ximeng Zhang
Photos by Li Jie Zhang

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine


Read more articles from the Cedric Yarbrough – Micah Fowler Issue.

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: