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 ...
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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.

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