Death Row Inmate's Last Days
This edition features the life of a Chinese man on death row as seen through the eyes of a fellow prisoner and told to Xiao Du, a prison guard and writer. The story first appeared earlier this year in the popular nonfiction platform The Livings.
Death Row Inmate’s Last Days
By Xiao Du
A prison guard called Xiao Du puts pen to paper and describes aspects of prison life. One memorable story was recalled to him by Shang Jing, a 50-year-old male prisoner at the detention center where he worked. Prior to his conviction, Shang Jing had been the boss of a private company, and had been held on the grounds of fraud and misappropriation of funds. Due to the complexity of his case, the first and second court proceedings took a long time. Shang Jing stayed in the center for almost six years before being sentenced to nine years.
Shang Jing told Xiao Du that because he’d been detained for so long, he had been designated head prisoner of a cell, and encountered a wide range of characters. The one that left the deepest impression was a certain prisoner who had been condemned to death. Living in the same cell as the death row inmate, Shang Jing was able to observe his behavior up close. Through his dealings with this man, he was left with “an acute sense of the yearnings, petty feelings, and twisted depths” someone can sink to in those last weeks on death row.
The following account was compiled based on Shang Jing’s statements.
One day in April 2014, after breakfast, the damp cell was silent. Prisoners with their hands tucked deep into their sleeves slouched on stools against each side of the cell. At 8:30 a.m. exactly, Old Li rattled his keys and unlocked the main corridor gate. After jingling for a while in search of the right key, the iron door of Prison Cell No. 2002 opened.
A roomful of prisoners stood up, shouting in unison: “Sir!”
Old Li glanced around, resting his eyes briefly in the corner of the room. Wearing a red vest, Sun Huaikui was standing in handcuffs and ankle chains, his head lowered. This was an inmate who had robbed, raped and murdered his way into prison almost three years ago. The case had traversed all three levels of the court system, and at each trial his death sentence was confirmed.
Old Li walked back and forth along the central aisle, and as he paced he said: “The weather is good today. When it’s time for exercise, we need to hang all these filthy things out to dry and thoroughly clean the cell. This cell must be spotless.” After speaking, he turned to the head and ordered Shang Jing, “In a while, you should arrange for someone to help Sun Huaikui move his things.”
“Yes, Sir!” Shang Jing responded.
Soon everyone was hard at work at Old Li’s request.
There was a sudden bark at the prison door: “Sun Huaikui. Come out.”
Sun Huaikui dragged himself toward the door, step by chained step. Three policemen stood outside. One was a guard we knew but the other two were unfamiliar. The strangers wore standard police wear, and all were neatly dressed. The pistols hanging from their waists looked heavy, and a chilling air surrounded them. Sun Huaikui’s face turned ashen.
He walked out of the door, and the two unknown policemen stepped forward to lift him by both arms. Old Li of the disciplinary guards was there too, and he focused on keeping the others on their toes, telling them to clean out the room as fast as they could. Later, Shang Jing was summoned, along with three of the better-behaved old-timers, to the meeting room.
Shang Jing followed the guards through the corridors of the detention center and saw armed policemen stationed every five meters on either side. That’s when he realized that today was execution day for condemned inmates.
On a summer’s day in 2011, around midnight, the plump 50-year-old Sun Huaikui was on the doorstep of a single woman’s home in a certain district (in an unnamed city). He was about to enter when he was caught in the act by two patrolling policemen.
The rundown neighborhood was near the provincial railway station. Most of the original residents have moved away, and now these apartments were mostly rented to migrant workers. In the past three years, rape, robbery and murder had abounded. There had been five cases of murder. The victims were all single women who had come looking for work or had gotten involved in dodgy work. They all died in a similar way: with a stocking around the neck and inside their own homes. They were robbed of anything valuable. The victims’ bodies showed obvious signs of sexual assault, but very few clues were left at each scene.
There were also three cases of robbery which took place while women were sleeping. The thief would quietly enter the room, tape up the woman’s mouth, strip her, and tie her to a chair. According to a description given by one victim, the perpetrator was a short, plump, older man. He had a shoulder bag containing a hand-held flashlight and a utility knife. His head was covered by stockings that disguised his features. The thief would force his victims to perform lewd acts, before sweeping up anything of value in the room and leaving. The victims of the three robberies reported them, but critically, after telling friends or relatives. At two of the crime scenes, there was no valid evidence left to be found. At one, traces of the perpetrator’s semen were on the dead women’s body. This meant the police could extract his DNA, giving them evidence they needed to nail him.
As the number of cases mounted, the area started getting a bad name. The police launched a neighborhood watch initiative, arranged for a series of patrols, spot checks and alerts, and followed anyone acting strangely.
It was a patrol like this that accidentally discovered Sun Huaikui. His location on the nights of the earlier crimes matched and he was acting very suspiciously, so they took him in for questioning. He was then handed over to the criminal investigation squad.
Sun Huaikui told the investigators he was a retired railway employee. After giving up work on the railway, he got into some shady business in the provincial capital. And why was he on the doorstep of an unknown woman late at night? Well, she was his girlfriend, Sun Huaikui said. He and his wife were divorced, and he was in love with a woman involved in a pyramid scheme. For the past month and a half he hadn’t seen her because they had had a fight. But not only was his confession inconsistent with what others had said, but also, on further questioning, he just stopped explaining, simply saying that he had to come to find his girlfriend, and nothing more.
Only after the DNA test results came out, and this was combined with personal and physical evidence, did Sun Huaikui plead guilty. In one fell swoop, several murder cases had been cracked.
For a week, he didn’t wash. He lay curled up in the corner, silently sleeping. In all honesty, he stank. At the time, prisoners still had work to do in the cells. The disciplinary officer told Shang Jing not to make him do anything just yet, not to bother him, but to pay attention to his every move, and if he acted strangely, to report it.
Given these special instructions, the head prisoner later found a set of old clothes, shoes, and a towel left by former inmates, and threw them in Sun Huaikui’s direction. He gave him prison-issue soap and washing utensils and told him to wash himself in the toilet and throw away his dirty clothes. A week later, Sun Huaikui had calmed down somewhat, and officers sought him out for several conversations. Each time, even before anything had been said, Sun Huaikui started to scream, saying the investigators had tortured him and forced him to confess, and that he hadn’t done anything.
It’s the job of detention center officers to ensure that suspects do not get into any more trouble while their cases are moving through the system. So to stabilize suspects’ moods, they have to be ready to comfort and persuade. With this in mind, the disciplinary officers gave Sun Huaikui tips on how to bring his case to court, and said he would have to rely on evidence and find a lawyer to help him find something in his favor to offer the judge.
But Sun Huaikui replied:
It’s impossible. I can defend myself. This case is taking too long and already involves so many people. Regardless of the outcome, I must be prepared to fight a protracted war.
Old Li sighed and said, “As you’ve been caught, it’s not easy to get out of it. It’s more a matter of peace of mind, to clear things up one by one, in order to get the best outcome you can for yourself.”
Unexpectedly, after the senior officer had said this a few times, Sun Huaikui got into Buddhism, appearing to have become quite pious. Every day, in addition to doing a little bit of work and killing time (at that time, the cell did not force him to do any work in particular), when he wasn’t asleep, he spent this time chanting.
He let people bring him books on Buddhism and asked for a 16 cm Sakyamuni Buddha image for his wall. He got up at 4:30 a.m. to mumble some words to the Buddha. After finishing work at night, he sat against the wall and continued to read until everyone else was asleep or even later.
Sun Huaikui always said: “My fate is to meet Buddha.” Years ago, he was riding his bike when a bus knocked him off his pedals. When his mind was up in the air, one hand went out and somehow grabbed the bar at the front of the bus. He was dragged more than 10 meters, but when he finally came to a halt, he stood up in front of the bus, felt in his pocket and found a hard object. It was a metal Buddha plaque he had got earlier from [the holy] Mount Jiuhua. He always said that when the time came, the Almighty Buddha would be there to bless him again.
It’s true that Sun Huaikui had had no shortage of luck.
According to his case material, he was born into a railway worker’s family, and became a freight-train driver. After three years of that, working with coal every day, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He quit and got into a disreputable business with some people he knew.
Sun Huaikui, born with the gift of the gab, hung out with pyramid schemers for a while, soon mastering the basics of the “can fool, will fool” attitude and developing a sales pitch for anything and everything.
He went about ranking the people in his network. He classmates, colleagues, and fellow villagers were all evaluated according to their suitability, and he especially paid attention to the women in his circle. He invited several bored ladies whose husbands were rarely around, never missing an opportunity to flatter them, show them just how money grew on trees, and encourage them to keep investing in him and his schemes.
Then, Sun Huaikui began to hoodwink his neighbors, feeding the fire of their love of money—up and down the street, drawing in relatives, brothers, and friends near and far, rising through the ranks and becoming indispensable to the system. Flattery and women, these were Sun Huaikui’s strengths—in his own words, he was “earning women’s money, playing with their bodies, disrupting their hearts.”
However, in this floating world he was living in, some actually fell for Sun Huaikui, to the point of declaring that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with him. Was this what he wanted? Absolutely not. As proud as the spring breeze, Sun Huaikui would have none of it. Quarrels provoked his murderous anger…
Since his victims were all single women, the police quickly intervened in investigations, but Sun Huaikui somehow managed to slip the net every time. Such a fearless attitude made him bolder, until he was finally caught and brought to justice.
The investigation department did not come to see Sun Huaikui even once while he spent half a year reading Buddhist scripts in his cell. Under the care of the guards and the head prisoner, Sun Huaikui started to get better. As if there was nothing wrong, he started eating and sleeping well, turning his attention to improving his quality of life.
This was no easy matter though. He lacked the solid economic base that some prisoners had. In the cell, the “three nothings”—those with no relationships, accounts (detainees had to have money on their own personal account to buy daily necessities and food), or cigarettes—had life pretty tough. After Sun Huaikui started out in business, he and his wife divorced. Where his money went after his arrest, he had no idea. And apart from an older brother who visited occasionally, he was basically a “three nothings.” But he decided this could not last.
He had two ways of improving his situation: one was by gaining “godsons,” and the other was by bullying the head prisoner. It might sound ridiculous, but Sun Huaikui relied on being a well-known prisoner, and was not afraid to use this to secure for himself as “free and comfortable” a living environment as possible.
According to Shang Jing’s account, over the years, Sun Huaikui had 13 godsons while he was in detention, all men with families and money, deposit accounts, and cigarettes, who were too vulnerable to live independently or too young to be able to hack it in jail without help. Sun Huaikui’s principle was to keep control of the system and live well from it.
Cellmates came and went. Some cases were minor, and detainees left clothes behind when they were released home. Sun Huaikui made sure things that were about to be thrown away came to him first. This was his “operating capital.” Then he got to work swapping his godsons’ material capital for his social capital.
He was adept at judging incoming cellmates’ potential value and targeted them with offers of help—for example, a pair of shoes, underwear, a toothbrush, a piece of soap, toilet paper, etc. These daily necessities were exchanged for the pure gratitude of the newcomer. When Xiao Yi entered the cell in his dark-rimmed glasses, a fragile studious-looking boy, he sat against the wall opposite Sun Huaikui—the exclusive seat for newcomers. Sun Huaikui’s eyes did not leave his face.
Sun Huaikui earnestly asked Xiao Yi what crime he had committed. The boy replied that he had been helping at a gym when it happened. He had got together with girl from art school. One night two months before, Xiao Yi took the girl to a karaoke parlor but was blocked from leaving by her ex-boyfriend and his two brothers. In the small room it was hard to fight, but Xiao Yi brought out a small knife from his pocket and stabbed them. They soon fled.
That night, after their wounds had been stitched up, the three boys ran to Xiao Yi’s gym to make a claim for compensation. They wanted 2 million yuan (just under $285,000) not to call the cops. Xiao Yi immediately called his parents to come to the provincial capital, and they found a decent local lawyer. After a number of round trips between the police and the court, his lawyer suggested he plead for guilty for a lighter sentence, and declare himself bankrupt and in need of financial help.
Xiao Yi said that the hardest thing for the family at the moment was the fear of him being bullied in the detention center, and said they would be checking on him. Hearing this, Sun Huaikui comforted him saying:
Don’t be afraid, no one will get at you here. Look at you, still barefoot? When you’re let out for exercise, I will give you some shoes. Your friends at home, they will still need a few days to get things in order. If you need anything in the meantime, you can ask me. Just treat me to dinner later.
Xiao Yi’s eyes reddened with emotion.
A few days later, Xiao Yi’s guanxi, or connections, came through, and his well-stocked deposit account arrived. Xiao Yi, who has taken Sun Huaikui into his heart, naturally handed over the lot to him for safekeeping. By then, he had used this routine frequently. The ruse bagged him at least three or four godsons.
As for head prisoners, Sun Huaikui behaved more disgracefully.
Usually, when a new head prisoner was chosen, the disciplinary guard would consider his connections first to see if he could manage a cell. Prisoners might have been able to manage a company or a work unit in their past lives, but this did not make them necessarily good at cell control. Inmates are unruly by nature, especially ones like Sun Huaikui, who are out to test the ability and endurance of any head prisoner.
In view of the circumstances of Sun Huaikui’s case, the guards couldn’t control him too strictly or too indulgently. However, this was a hard balance to strike. Soon, misunderstandings arose between guards and head prisoners. Su Xiao was the second head prisoner. He had been an investor in Zhejiang. When the bank stopped lending, his capital chain was broken, so he got involved in grey market money and was eventually found guilty of fraud.
As head prisoner, Su Xiao sought compromise—literally “grabbing two ends and bringing them to the middle”—and his strategy for Sun Huaikui was “feelings-first, discipline-later.” In addition to giving Sun Huaikui special sleeping bunk privileges, he threw him a pack of cigarettes every three or so days, and occasionally bought him snacks from the kiosk.
At first, this worked well. When there was a problem in the cell, Sun Huaikui would take an “older prisoner” position and help sort out the situation with the head prisoner.
But soon, Su Xiao’s gentle friendly demeanor made him a target of Sun’s wheedling ways. Sun wanted two godsons to have roles as group leaders so they could participate in cell management. Su Xiao arranged for one of them to manage production.
In the cell, the head of the production team was a fairly influential post. The quality and quantity of production, the complexity of tasks, and delivery times were all up to the team leader. Since Sun Huaikui took control, decisions became more arbitrary. Inmates were bullied. For a time, fear ruled the roost, hanging like a dark cloud over the cell.
Soon, Sun Huaikui began to persuade Su Xiao that as head prisoner, he should let others manage things he didn’t want to do. At noon, if he wanted to sleep for an hour, he should do so. Su Xiao thought it made sense. So every day at noon, Sun Huaikui asked his godsons to help Su Xiao manage the cell, and to patrol exercise time. However, it didn’t take long for the sleeping Su Xiao to be discovered by the director of the patrol. Su Xiao was quickly dismissed from the role and transferred to another cell.
Without warning, the officer in charge had to bring in a reserve head prisoner from another cell. Unfortunately, they chose a man who had been in the same cell as Sun Huaikui before, and they had fought. Sure enough, when the new reserve head came in, Sun Huaikui began to look for trouble.
At lunch that day, they were selling radish pork dishes for 40 yuan a plate. Some of those with big large deposit accounts bought several portions. By convention, a few dishes were placed next to the head prisoner, who took first pick, passing the plates down the row. Sun Huaikui’s eyes brightened, as he stared at the head prisoner, and seeing that he took the plate with a bit of extra meat, he rushed up, spewing and screaming: “How can you be the head prisoner? How can you be so selfish? You’re unbelievable!” Subsequently, several of his godsons sons followed suit, all swearing at the head prisoner. Stunned, the reserve head was caught off guard and went to report the incident.
Although the disciplinary officer was extremely annoyed, the priority was bringing calm to the cell. Besides, how could you argue with a “death row prisoner”? The only thing to do was to calm things down and replace the reserve head with someone who would get on better with Sun Huaikui.
Later, every cell head behaved with the utmost respect toward prisoner Sun. As long as he did not cause too many rifts, the guards turned a blind eye to his tricks and ploys, including Shang Jing.
After staying in the detention center for more than a year, Sun’s case finally came before the procuratorate, and his lawyer got to read his papers. It also meant his case would be heard soon.
After doing some desk work, the lawyer met Sun Huaikui at the detention center, and told him that there were three main problems with his case: First, DNA: “Because the DNA found at the scene was yours, the accusation cannot be overturned completely.”
Second, Sun Huaikui’s own confession, “I’ve bumped off a few people.” When he heard the lawyer say this, he bleated out: “That was a forced statement!” The lawyer clasped his hands together.
Third, identification at the scene. Sun Huaikui opened his mouth to swear again and seeing the lawyer did not say anything, instead asking desperately: “So I’m finished then?”
“No! I just said that it is a disadvantage. There are factors in your favor too.” The lawyer said that the first favorable factor was also DNA. The evidence so far could not support the case that “five murders were all your doing.” In other words, from the material in the state’s possession, he should not be sentenced to death.
When Sun Huaikui heard it, he hurriedly asked: “What other favorable factors?” The lawyer said that the testimony of the parties and witnesses were contradictory. The height and voice of the murderer described by the witness did not match his.
The lawyer asked Sun Huaikui to think about it again and see if there were any positive things he hadn’t mentioned. At the end of the meeting, the lawyer comforted him and said that he still had confidence in the case, but that he must bear in mind that only the judge could decide in the end. The lawyer could only defend legal provisions and facts and strive for the best outcome for parties concerned.
After more than a year of back and forth investigation, the public security organs had enough evidence to prove that the five murders and three robberies were all committed by Sun Huaikui However, from the perspective of detention center management, they hoped the lawyer would give some hope to prisoners facing tough sentences, especially capital punishment. Because the entire trial period was so long, the detention center did not want anything extreme to happen.
But obviously, Sun Huaikui did not know this.
His first lawyer’s visit had put him in a good mood. Sun Huaikui went away thinking his lawyer would be able to shift his strategy. He was so happy, he boasted to his godsons about the future fortune they would make together once they got out. These fantasies made his prison buddies really cocky for a long time.
After the lawyers visited several times, in early 2013, Sun Huaikui’s case was heard for the first time.
A few months after the trial, the verdict was given—the death penalty. The disciplinary officers learned the result in advance. On that day, Sun Huaikui did not enter the cell immediately. The disciplinary officers had to put him in ankle restraints and hand cuffs according to the regulations. They first reminded inmates that there would now be a condemned prisoner in the cell and that everyone should keep to themselves and not provoke him.
When Sun Huaikui, who came back with the verdict, appeared at the door of the cell, he was locked in ankle chains and handcuffs, and made to put on a red death row vest. Sun Huaikui seems strangely complacent about it, as if he was a completely different person. His godsons found his fate hard to swallow.
On the third day after receiving the verdict, his lawyer came again, comforting Sun Huaikui saying there was no urgency, as the court of second instance and the high court would both have a chance to review the decision. He needed Sun to calm down, so he had time to find loopholes in the judgment.
Since then, Sun Huaikui’s life changed completely. Even the minimal work he had done before was abandoned. In addition to reading Buddhist texts and sleeping much of the day, he wrote defense materials on a small table made of instant noodle boxes. He didn’t speak much.
Soon it was the end of 2013, the court of second instance heard the case and the initial judgment was upheld. The lawyer came once after that, and there seems to be no constructive addition he could make. Sun Huaikui continued to do the same thing every day, reading Buddhist texts, sleeping, writing defense materials.
A few months later, the high court audited and reviewed the case. According to Sun Huaikui’s disciplinary officer, the staff of the high court advised Sun Huaikui to acknowledge the crime of murder. If he had a good attitude, he might be able to change his sentence, but Sun Huaikui said: “I will not be fooled.”
Then came the fateful day of 4 April 2014.
After Sun Huaikui was taken out, only his old brother was there to see him for the last time. Their meeting took only five minutes.
The disciplinary officer Old Li and head prisoner Shang Jing and others discussed how to keep the cell in order for a while. Old Li said proceedings would start around 2:30 p.m. In other words, Sun Huaikui would have to stay in the cell for another four hours. During this period, the prison would attentively monitor him using video to ensure nothing untoward happened in the cell.
Sun Huaikui’s last meal was to be at noon. He had to have a haircut and a bath, put on his clothes from home, and write a final message. Every detail should be seamlessly connected, and there should be no slight deviation.
Old Li also told us that some people have last-minute reactions, and no one can imagine what it might be, so in the morning, it is required to empty the room and not leave any objects that could harm anyone. They suddenly realized why they’d been asked to clean up. Old Li then directed everyone to use the empty instant noodle box to set up a square table for the final lunch and arrange seating for everyone in the cell.
When Sun Huaikui was escorted back to the cell, his face was blank. Several prison leaders were following in procession. Old Li signaled that Sun’s two godsons should help him to the table, and sit beside him. Shang Jing gave Sun Huaikui a cigarette, and a tall prisoner sat immediately behind him.
Old Li said to Sun Huaikui: “There is still time to shave your beard after the cigarette.” Then a set of new black clothes and black shoes was laid out. “Clothes, shoes and socks are all for you.” His brother had sent them. He waited to take a shower and then put them on.
His two godsons carefully shaved him, helped him clean his face, and combed his thinning hair. When he took a shower, two prisoners stood beside the toilet and watched him so he wouldn’t “slip” or do anything rash. After that, Sun Huaikui put on his new clothes and returned to his exclusive seat.
“If you still have something to explain, you can write it down. Otherwise let Shang Jing help you make a record.” Sun Huaikui lowered his head and smoked his cigarette and mumbled something incoherently. He said with all his strength, he has nothing to say. Shang Jing sat by his side, urging him to recall his memories.
According to Sun Huaikui’s remarks, Shang Jing wrote down his last words, and changed them several times. Letters were drafted and thrown away. The result was three letters: one to Sun’s old brother, one to his ex-wife and one to his son. Shang Jing read the final versions aloud. Sun Huaikui nodded and wrote his own name on them stroke by stroke.
He appeared deeply immersed in his memories. Three hours had passed, and the four dishes and one soup prepared for his last meal were now cold. The soybean salted duck, braised pork, green peppers with tofu, fried cabbage and tofu soup were put to one side. Having written his letters, Sun Huaikui picked up the tofu soup and took a big gulp, setting down his chopsticks for the last time.
The execution squad came soon after.
Old Li went into the cell and asked: “Are you ready?”
This question seems to pull Sun Huaikui back to reality. I saw him hit the floor, kneeling and crying, yelling at Old Li, and crying out senselessly:
Officer Li, I apologize! Thank you for taking care of me for so many years. I only killed two people. The others were not me. There are bad guys out there!
Old Li advised: “You shouldn’t say that, or the bad guys will chase you even after death. Best go peacefully.” Then he signaled for help getting Sun Huaikui to the door.
When Sun Huaikui was taken away, the room went deathly quiet. Old Li looked at everyone and sighed and said: “Once you get to this step, there is no way back, so you should stop this mischief while you still can.”
To lighten the mood, Old Li found somewhere to sit and took out a pack of Zhonghua cigarettes—the best brand—and handed them out to the smokers in the cell. He explained that with the death penalty, people usually lose consciousness first, then stop breathing and then their heartbeat dies. It takes no more than one and a half minutes to die. After confirming the death, the body is sent directly to the funeral home for cremation, and the family will receive the casket.
Old Li got back to business with, “In a minute, you will have to pack up the things belonging to Sun Huaikui in his cell, and someone will be sent to pick them up. There will be his death note too. Tonight, everyone must sleep soundly. Let’s get to it.”
Sun Huaikui’s three letters, despite having been written by Shang Jing, reveal his true feelings. In his letter to his older brother, he mainly expresses his gratitude for his brother’s care over the years. Blood is thicker than water when you’re in trouble, and this is reflected in their relationship. In the letters to his ex-wife and children, he says more. Confessions of the past and his attachment to life. And the one Shang Jing remembers clearest is the letter to his son. Sun Huaikui wrote:
Today is the last day I can meet my loved ones. I strain my shoulders as if to see you one last time, but not even your shadow looks back. I know you don’t want anything to do with a father like me. I am a burden to you, a shame you must carry. But you are my son, and that’s a fact.
I am not qualified to teach you anything. So in these final moments, I just want to say that your mother is a good person, and I ruined her life when she could have been happy. It must have been very hard for her to raise you on her own.
Son, you have grown up now. Your mother who worked hard for you is old, so you must be filial. She will not ask for much. If you are safe and sound, and spend time with her, she will be satisfied, I’m sure. I think you will do a better job than I could even imagine.
Son, today my sinful life comes to an end. My death will wash away the bad karma. Forget me and live your life well.
Translator: Heather Mowbray