BEIJING -- Chinese state media and even the defendant have praised the verdict. But that doesn't mean the experts are convinced that the sensational murder trial of Gu Kailai has answered all the questions surrounding the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.
Gu, a prominent lawyer and the wife of a former Politburo member, received a suspended death sentence Monday for poisoning Heywood.
But legal experts are questioning many aspects of the case, including the forensic evidence and the explanation that Gu, 53, poisoned Heywood to protect her son.
Heywood, 41, was found dead Nov. 15 in a hotel room in Chongqing, the city where Gu’s husband, Bo Xilai, once one of the most powerful men in China, had been secretary of the Communist Party.
During the seven-hour trial held Aug. 9 in Hefei, Anhui province, it emerged that an initial test of a blood sample from Heywood’s body showed no evidence of poisoning. A second test did not show enough poison to kill a grown man. In between, it is not clear what happened to the blood sample.
Li Xiaolin, a Beijing lawyer who was hired to represent Gu's butler, a co-defendant in the case, said the blood sample was one of the suspicious aspects of the case.
Conspiracy theorists in China have suggested that Heywood’s death might have been a convenient excuse to bring down Bo, an enormously charismatic populist who is a hero for many neo-leftists who would like to reinstate Communist values. Bo stood in the way of President Hu Jintao’s plan to install Vice President Xi Jinping as his successor.
Bo has not been seen in public since March, when Gu was taken into custody. He has been stripped of his official position, but has not been charged. During the trial, his name was barely mentioned.
Skepticism abounds over the prosecutor’s explanation that Gu murdered Heywood because she feared he would physically harm her son, 24-year-old Bo Guagua, a recent graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
In the trial, the prosecution showed a purported email that Heywood sent to Bo Guagua threatening to “destroy” him if he didn’t receive money from a failed real estate deal. Among the Chinese who were not fluent English speakers, there was initial confusion about whether the term meant to kill or to ruin the reputation.
"I’m not convinced as to the motive we’re being given," said Donald Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University who has been blogging extensively on the case. “The motive we’re given was of course better for her than the motive people suspected –- that she killed Neil Heywood because he knew too much about her corrupt business. ... That ultimately laid the groundwork for her being given the suspended death sentence.”
The Chinese Communist Party has been anxious to get the trial wrapped up before an upcoming party congress, when the new leadership will be anointed.
Toward that end, Gu was unusually cooperative. She and her co-defendant Zhang Xiaojun -- her family's butler, who received a nine-year sentence -- promised they would not appeal their sentences. In remarks shown on television, Gu said, "I feel the verdict is just and fully reflects the court's special respect for the law, its special respect for reality and, in particular, its special respect for life."
The official New China News Agency report on the sentence quoted various purported observers praising the court.
Also Monday, four police officials from Chongqing were sentenced for covering up the murder and received prison sentences ranging from five to 11 years.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: This frame grab taken from Chinese television shows Gu Kailai at a court session in Hefei, Anhui province on Monday, where she was sentenced for murder. Credit: AFP/CCTV