SHANGHAI, China – The murder case was supposed to be simple: A jobless man accused of killing six police officers in a rare stabbing rampage in China's largest city.
But the Chinese public surprised authorities, sympathizing with Yang Jia despite the violent attack and asking whether he was driven to his alleged crime by police abuse of power.
Concerns grew when a state media report said Yang tried but failed to sue Shanghai police for psychological damage he claimed to have suffered during an interrogation last year — indicating the killings were in revenge.
Several Chinese papers have hinted that Yang was wronged and demanded a fair trial. But some say he didn't get one, pointing out that his assigned lawyer works for the same government that oversees the police station where the officers were killed.
Shanghai media this week have been silent on the increasingly sensitive trial, which was delayed until the Olympics were over. The verdict, reached Tuesday as reporters hovered outside the closed courtroom, hasn't been announced. A death sentence is likely.
"That's the so-called 'open, fair trial,'" Yan Lieshan, editor of the respected Southern Weekly newspaper, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "I think people get what's going on. Let's see how this thing gets a happy ending."
Chinese have grown increasingly aware of their legal rights in recent years, but justice remains elusive. The country continues to have problems with closed trials and a lack of due process. Only this summer, criminal defense lawyers got the right to meet with their clients without official permission, request evidence from prosecutors and call witnesses in court.
The attack came a month before the highly anticipated Summer Olympics, startling a host city that had already tightened its security. The 28-year-old Yang was accused of storming into a police station July 1 and knifing officers, killing five and wounding four. One of the wounded died the next day.
Yang, who is from Beijing, reportedly told police he was seeking revenge after officers from the station interrogated him last year for riding an unlicensed bicycle.
There was public anger at the police killings, but another point of view quickly emerged.
Southern Weekend published a long, sympathetic front-page story asking what could have made a young, quiet man who liked to travel want to take so many lives.
"I'd rather break the law than live with injustice my whole life," the newspaper said Yang told police.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that Yang sued the officers who had interrogated him for psychological damage, but the claim was rejected.
Last month, a man in the nearby city of Suzhou was arrested — by Shanghai police — and accused of spreading online rumors that the police interrogating Yang had damaged his genitals.
In their defense, Shanghai police last month released audio of last year's incident, showing Yang immediately arguing with the officer who stopped him.
"Yang Jia's abnormal behavior is a measure of abnormality in our own society," said an editorial last month in the Pearl River Evening News, adding that putting Yang to death quickly would stir up a public already skeptical about how the case was handled.
Another editorial last month in The Beijing News called for Yang's appointed lawyer, Xie Youming, to drop the case because he's a legal adviser for Shanghai's Zhabei district, which oversees the police station where the attack occurred. An application by two Beijing-based lawyers to represent Yang at his father's request was rejected.
Xie is refusing to take phone calls from the media, a colleague at Shanghai's Mingjiang Law Firm, Di Zhanjun, said. The Shanghai No. 2 People's Intermediate Court, where Yang's trial was held, wouldn't comment. And a Shanghai police spokesman on Wednesday only said the trial was over, with the verdict to be announced within a few days.
Faced with limited information and a swirl of rumors, the public started to raise doubts about the case, said David Bandurski, who studies the Chinese media for the Hong Kong-based China Media Project.
"Some raised the issue of why he did it. So this got into bigger issue of maybe there were injustices carried out by the Shanghai police," he said Wednesday. "That's where I think authorities would not want this case to go."
A Beijing-based lawyer and legal blogger, Liu Xiaoyuan, said Wednesday that more than 30 of his 40-plus blog posts about Yang's case since it began had been blocked.
"Yesterday, I wrote one about why the Shanghai court didn't put the notice of the trial's schedule on its Web site, which the law says they should do three days in advance," Liu said.
That post was blocked too, he said.
"The Shanghai authorities seem kind of insecure," said one Shanghai resident, a technician at an IT company who gave his family name as Zhao. "You know, they just want to punish the killer."