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Xinhua Miu (left) and Xinrong Miu leaving the court after exoneration. (Credit: Leizhu Chen for ThePaper.cn)

A woman named Yanhui Yang was found dismembered in seven pieces, placed in plastic bags tucked away in an abandoned cottage on a hill in southeastern China in April 2003.

The victim’s ex-boyfriend Xinhua Miu and four of his male family members were arrested, and convicted of the slaying and body disposal at trial about a year later. Miu was sentenced to death, and his father, uncle and two brothers all received prison terms.

Now crucial mitochondrial DNA evidence has been scientifically refuted by an American expert, which resulted in all five being cleared of the crime, and freed.

“China is using forensic DNA, but had not been giving defendants even the basic information needed to understand or evaluate supposed DNA matches,” said Greg Hampikian, a DNA expert at Boise State University who provided the new analysis. “DNA reports—like all evidence—can be faked, exaggerated or misinterpreted. Without data, DNA is meaningless.”

The crucial evidence, aside from confessions, were three hairs found in the Miu family’s bathroom. The prosecution maintained that bathroom is where the woman had been dismembered.

Two of the three hairs were identified to be the victim’s with 99.999 percent assurance, the Forensic Department of the Public Security Bureau of Liaoning Province ruled.

No further scientific determination was provided by the authorities, said Hampikian.

“We did not get the sequence data of the mitochondrial DNA, nor any information about a database, all we got was a report that concluded ‘the probability that two of the dark hairs are from Yang is 99.999 percent,’” Hampikian told Forensic Magazine.

The five Miu family members appealed the 2004 convictions twice. All five maintained their confessions had been acquired through torture.

The Innocence Aid of Shangquan Law Office was contacted in 2016 by Xinrong Miu, one of the accused killer’s brothers who was behind bars.

The new analysis was put together by a team of attorneys representing each of the family members, a group which included Lixin Mao, Wanchun Zhan, Hua Cai, Ping Liu, Yongzhong Gu, Zhifang Gong, Xuhua Zhang, Guqing Chen, Yaogang Wang and Wenlong Gao.

The defense team with the four suspects, from left to right: Ping Liu, Zhifang Gong, Rongxin Miu, Dr. Yongzhong Gu, Xinhua Miu, Dr. Lixin Mao, Wanchun Zhan, Xinguang Miu, Guoqing Chen, Jinjia Miu and Wenlong Gao. (Credit: Dr. Lixin Mao)

The lawyers reached out to DNA expert Jiaboa Ji (known also as Jack Freeman), who in turn contacted his American counterpart, Hampikian (who is also director of the Idaho Innocence Project). Put together, the mitochondrial evidence was turned on its head at the July retrial. What was initially used to link the victim to the bathroom was now exclusionary evidence, according to those involved. The hairs did not belong to the victim.

“I asked Dr. Hampikian for help, and he kindly agreed,” said Jiaboa Ji, in an email to Forensic Magazine.

Hampikian had previously secured the first exoneration by debunking of false Y-STR analysis, in a Taiwanese gang rape case, as reported in the journal Forensic Science International Genetics two months ago.

Independent Chinese media outlet The Sixth Tone also reported on the quintuple exoneration, which was decided last month. Their analysis of the country’s criminal courts found 34 overturned wrongful convictions from 2013 to 2016.  

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