It has been almost ten years since the body of Amanda Zhao, a 21-year-old exchange student from China, was found stuffed in a suitcase that was discovered near a lake in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.
There has only ever been one suspect: Ms. Zhao’s live-in boyfriend, Li Ang, another Chinese citizen studying in Canada. But police forces and governments spent years wrangling over which country should prosecute the case. There have been three disputed confessions, including a previously unknown one from Mr. Li in 2009, and a single day in court 12 months ago for the accused.
Now, as news comes that the Beijing First Intermediate People’s Court might hand down a verdict this week, Mr. Li’s family says that for all their efforts to have their son's case tried in China, they now believe he would have had a fairer hearing in Canada.
The verdict will bring a measure of relief to one of two families brought together by a killing in a faraway land. One lost its only child that day in Burnaby, B.C.; the other is doing everything it can to get theirs back.
The Globe and Mail has learned that Mr. Li confessed to the killing shortly after he was arrested in Beijing in 2009, saying he had accidentally suffocated Ms. Zhao in the fall of 2002 while they were "playing with pillows." The confession is at odds with RCMP evidence that Ms. Zhao was intentionally strangled – Mr. Li’s lawyers say the autopsy conducted in Canada found marks on her neck – and Mr. Li’s mother claims the confession was extracted after "unimaginable" torture at the hands of Chinese police.
China’s justice system, when ordered to, can move with startling speed. But more than a year has passed since a court heard the Zhao case that was passed to Chinese prosecutors by the RCMP, which charged Mr. Li in absentia with first-degree murder after he had already returned to China.
Chinese courts are legally required to announce their verdict within a month of being presented a case by the prosecution, according to Jerome Cohen, a New York University professor considered the top foreign expert on China’s justice system.
“Such extraordinary delay usually means an inability of the relevant leaders to agree on the outcome,” said Prof. Cohen. “This occurs in politically sensitive cases. The court in these circumstances simply waits for the political powers-that-be to instruct it about the severity of the sentence.”
“Normally guilt is not the issue,” he added, “but, if the family’s wealth and influence are significant and if the family manoeuvres to use them, even guilt could be in question.”
While tied together by the killing and its aftermath, Ms. Zhao’s family and Mr. Li’s family otherwise have little in common. Her family is poor and spent their life savings sending their daughter to school in Canada. His is rich and well-connected, leading to suspicions they will somehow be able to affect the outcome of the trial.
Mr. Li’s mother, however, laughed bitterly at the suggestion she has the power to influence the case. Though the family is clearly affluent – they have retained one of Beijing’s most prestigious law firms, King and Capital – she noted that her son has already spent three years in jail without a conviction. His father is an army scientist, she said, not a high-ranking commander.
“If we were able to do it, my son would have been released a long time ago,” Mr. Li’s mother said during an interview in the law firm office. A 56-year-old retired bureaucrat, she was wearing a gold watch on one wrist and a white jade bracelet on the other. (Mr. Li’s mother asked that her own name not be used for fear Chinese Internet users would track her down.)
She said her son told her that he didn’t murder Ms. Zhao, that he was instead heartbroken by her death and told the court they were “in a loving relationship.”
The murdered woman’s family chose not to reply to the new version of events offered by Mr. Li’s family. “Facts speak louder than words,” said Ms. Zhao’s mother, Yang Baoying, said on Saturday. “I can’t bear to recall everything one more time.”
Given their fight to avoid extradition to Canada, Mr. Li’s family and lawyers now believe he would get a fairer hearing in British Columbia than in China, where the conviction rate approaches 99 per cent. “I believe Canada is a country ruled by the law. He would definitely be found innocent there,” Mr. Li’s mother said . She said the family asked for the case to be transferred back to B.C., but Chinese authorities denied the request.
If there are no outside political considerations, the outcome will likely depend on whether the Chinese judges accept the confessions by Mr. Li and his roommate of the time, Zhang Han. Mr. Zhang told police in Canada and China that after Mr. Li told him that he had killed Ms. Zhao, the two of them put the body in a suitcase and drove from their shared apartment in Burnaby to Stave Lake, where it was thrown into a wooded area near the water.
Charges in B.C. against Mr. Zhang were dismissed in 2004 after a court ruled the confession was inadmissible because Burnaby RCMP coerced Mr. Zhang and denied him access to a lawyer. Mr. Li’s mother and lawyers contend his subsequent confession in China was extracted using torture.
The unprecedented arrangement of the RCMP sharing evidence with Chinese authorities developed after Canada received assurances that Mr. Li, now 28, would not receive the death penalty if convicted.
Mr. Li’s mother also said her son didn’t flee Canada after Ms. Zhao’s death, as media reports suggested, but left because his visa was expiring at the end of October 2002. She showed his visa and passport to The Globe and Mail, as well as the round-trip plane ticket that she said he purchased because he was planning to go back and continue his studies. The return date was open.
Ms. Zhao’s family and Mr. Li’s family agree on one point: they want the trial to come to an end. Mr. Li’s mother says that since her son is already behind bars, even a guilty verdict on Thursday would be better than the agony of more waiting.
“I just want them to announce their verdict. There’s nothing left to investigate any more.”