A proposed change in the law requiring jurors to take part in trials in which defendants face the death penalty illustrates China's prudent attitude toward capital punishment, legal officials and experts said.
Unlike their counterparts in Western legal systems, jurors in China do not determine verdicts. They act more like independent observers, offering advice to judges based on the evidence presented in court.
Since 2015, jurors have been used in low-level criminal and civil cases as part of a pilot program. However, lawmakers are considering a draft law that would involve jurors in the most serious, high-profile cases.
A revised draft of the country's juror law was submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the top legislature, for review on Wednesday.
The first version, which was discussed in December, said that criminal trials in which defendants faced more than 10 years in prison should be heard by a seven-person collegiate bench made up of judges and jurors.
In the revised version, that was extended to cases involving the death penalty or cases with major social impact.
"This change shows that the judicial authorities have attached greater importance to cases that may result in the death penalty and that they are very cautious about applying the law," said Ruan Chuansheng, a law professor at the Shanghai Administration Institute.
Under the latest draft, jurors on the collegiate bench would be permitted to verify and comment on the facts of a case. It says they may also offer opinions on verdicts and sentencing, but they are not involved in the final judgment.
"Clarifying what part a juror can participate in is crucial because it will be useful for them to play a bigger role in hearings," Ruan added. "And courts can also make judgments more accurate in this way."
Qin Shuo, a judge from Beijing Haidian District People's Court, said jurors are independent, "which means their ideas can prevent us from focusing solely on legal issues".
"I can ask questions during trials and read case materials," said Ma Zhonglan, who served as a juror in the court. "My opinions on facts and sometimes on verdicts and sentencing were respected by the judges."
The draft law submitted on Wednesday states that citizens age 28 or older, and with a high school education or above, can be randomly selected as jurors. People who provide personal applications or who are recommended by entities such as businesses or government departments are also permitted.
People with serious records of legal trouble, lawyers whose licenses have been revoked, defaulters and arbitrators are ineligible, the latest draft says.
A pilot program using jurors began in April 2015 and will be finished at the end of this month. The experience gained is expected to contribute to the drafting process.
So far, 13,740 people, including Ma, have become jurors in 50 courts, 9,220 more than the figure before the test, a report submitted to the legislature said.
These jurors attended hearings in 30,659 criminal cases, 178,749 civil cases and 11,846 administrative cases during the period, about 77 percent of the total disputes heard by the 50 courts.
(Source: China Daily)