In 1997 a Taiwanese soldier was executed for murder, despite there being no evidence against him.
The authorities last year admitted he was innocent and compensated his family, but legal experts warn a similar tragedy could happen again under the current judicial system.
Chiang Kuo-ching was convicted of raping and killing a five-year-old girl. He was one of two soldiers who worked in the same building as the girl’s mother, and had failed a lie detector test because he was scared.
He insisted he was innocent, but was executed at the age of 21.
After a long campaign by his parents, investigators reopened the case in 2010 and indicted a man with a history of sexual offences last year.
The government admitted Chiang was tortured into confessing and late last year apologised to his family.
Despite this alarming case, Taiwan’s judges continue to sentence defendants to death with no material evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, experts say.
Instead, they rely mainly on confessions or co-defendants’ statements, and routinely accept as evidence police interrogations that are not recorded or videotaped, even though the law requires recordings to prevent police torture, lawyers and others say.
“The problem is even though on paper judges are supposed to follow the principle of innocent until proven guilty, in practice many don’t,” said Lin Feng-cheng, head of Taiwan’s Judicial Reform Foundation.
“They and the society want to quickly solve a case and bring justice to the victims’ families,” he said.
He and others say the young democracy’s judicial system is still immature and lacks sufficient safeguards, including trials by jury.
With a public that generally does not question court sentences, there are worries that more wrongful executions could happen, especially since Taiwan has ended a four-year moratorium.
From 2006 to 2009, no executions were carried out, as the government tried to bring Taiwan closer to the international trend of abolishing the death penalty.
But the moratorium ended in 2010 after former Justice minister Wang Ching-feng inadvertently drew attention to it, by publicly stating that she would not sign off on any executions.
Facing public pressure, President Ma Ying-jeou replaced Ms Wang with Tseng Yung-fu, who promptly ordered four people be executed, and another five last year.
Taiwan’s judges – most of whom favour the death penalty – meanwhile sentenced 15 people to death at the Supreme Court level last year, the highest number in the past decade.
Once praised as a potential leader in Asia on the issue, Taiwan now finds itself criticised by the European Union, Amnesty International and other anti-death penalty groups.
Taiwan’s government says it wants to eventually abolish the death penalty, but not until it can convince the public. Surveys show that more than 70 percent of the population favours it.
“At present, the majority of the people in Taiwan are still opposed to the abolition of the death penalty and therefore we think it is inappropriate for the government to do away with the death penalty right now,” said Chen Wen-chi, an adviser and spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice.
But opponents argue that many abolitionist countries went against public opinion.
More importantly, they say that given Taiwan’s still unsophisticated police, prosecution and judicial practices, executions should be halted to avoid punishing the innocent.
Some practices from Taiwan’s martial law period, including torturing suspects, still linger, said Chang Chuan-fen, an executive committee member of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty.
Police officers and prosecutors had told her they needed to be rough with suspects so they confessed. And Taiwan’s ability to collect scientific evidence, such as DNA, or to reconstruct crime scenes, is still limited, she said.
“So to a large extent the prosecutors and police officers rely on the old habits to give a lot of pressure [to suspects] and… they have some fancy ways to not leave a trace,” Ms Chang said.
Few lawyers here have the experience to handle death penalty cases well, so defendants do not get a proper defence, according to the alliance.
Last month, President Ma said the government was trying to reduce the use of the death penalty. Prosecutors have been urged to avoid seeking the death sentence except for the most extreme crimes.
Over the years, Taiwan has also reduced the offences punishable by death, and given judges greater discretion to punish defendants with life imprisonment instead.
But legal experts say until the death penalty is abolished, more safeguards must be put in place to prevent miscarriages of justice.
There are 57 inmates currently on death row. At least one of them, and four others sentenced to death but still undergoing appeals, were convicted with no material evidence, Lin Feng-cheng said.
“The mistakes made in Chiang Kuo-ching’s case are typical of mistakes still made in Taiwan,” said Lin. “We believe if we continue the death penalty, the risks are very high.”