American crimes, Chinese trials: Here’s how it works
As Los Angeles police worked with Chinese authorities to build a triple murder case against Tai Zhi Cui, two similar cases were heading for trial in Chinese courts.
The body of Tong Shao, a 20-year-old student from China, was found in the trunk of her car in Iowa City, Iowa, in 2014. Investigators focused on Shao’s boyfriend, Xiangnan Li, after learning that he had flown to China on a one-way ticket shortly after she was last seen alive.
The lead investigator, Iowa City Police Det. David Gonzalez, was concerned about handing over evidence to the Chinese, which could have disrupted an American prosecution if Li ever returned to the U.S.
But then, a delegation of Chinese officials came to Iowa to discuss the case. Gonzalez became convinced that a Chinese prosecution was the best option.
“Ideally we would like to prosecute here, but when it comes down to it … we wanted to get some type of justice served, one way or another,” he said.
Li pleaded guilty during a roughly six-hour trial in the Chinese city of Wenzhou and was sentenced in 2016 to life in prison.
The other international prosecution began with the murder of Tianmei Gao, whose body was found in a trash can floating in a lake at L.A. County’s Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in early 2007.
By the time investigators gathered enough evidence to charge Gao’s husband, Bo Li, he had moved back to China.
Officials from the district attorney’s extradition unit asked the prosecutor, Lisa Coen, not to give any evidence to the Chinese until they had researched the Chinese legal system and felt assured that Li would not be mistreated while in custody.
“Obviously, we also want to stay true to our principles in the U.S.,” Coen said. “If we found that they had an unjust system, then it’s not something we would have wanted to participate in.”
Coen attended the three-hour trial in China last May and thought Li was treated fairly.
“Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, he’ll be executed an hour after the verdict,’ ” she said. “It was very different from that.”
In the Chinese legal system, the defendant can pay monetary restitution in hopes of a reduced prison term. Li paid 100,000 yuan — about $16,000 — to the victim’s family, Coen said. Prosecutors asked for a 12- to 15-year sentence, and Li’s attorneys asked for 10 years.
In December, the court sentenced Li to life in prison, Coen said.
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