BEIJING — In 10 years on China's highest court, Xuan Dong had a hand in the executions of 1,000 people -- most carried out by a bullet to the back of the head, often within weeks of the verdict.
On his worst days, he considered himself a Communist Party hanging judge.
Sitting on the Supreme People's Court, he represented the last hope of the condemned. Secretly, he loathed rubber-stamping death sentences against people who he thought rarely deserved such a fate, often accepting confessions he knew were gained by torture. He watched silently as lawyers were beaten and dragged from court if they challenged the party's will.
In 2000, Xuan walked away from the bench to battle for human rights. Now, as China re-evaluates its hard-line policies on capital punishment, the 59-year-old defense lawyer has called for public trials, more media exposure and protections for lawyers, and less party interference with the judiciary.
"The party should not give instructions" to judges, he said. "There have been changes bit by bit, but they are too slow."
Recently, Chinese rights advocates such as Xuan have seen progress within a legal system that each year is estimated to execute more people than all other countries combined. Legislation enacted in 2006 requires the high court to review all death sentences, a step that had been dropped two decades ago.
Facing pressure before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China reportedly has scaled back the pace of executions. Although the government considers the number a state secret, China executed 1,051 people in 2006, accounting for two-thirds of the 1,591 put to death worldwide that year, according to statistics from Amnesty International, often based on media reports.
That represented a 40% drop from China's recorded total of 1,770 the previous year. Yet because of state secrecy, some activists believe that the number of executions could be as high as 10,000 to 15,000 a year.
The high court reviewed only a small portion of capital cases in recent years. Lower courts had operated virtually without oversight since Deng Xiaoping gave them the power to impose capital punishment amid a crime wave in the 1980s. Acquittals are rare and appeals are made in the same court, heard by poorly trained provincial judges little inclined to contradict themselves, according to studies by criminal justice experts.
The studies, relying on interviews with lawyers and defendants, paint a bleak picture: There are no juries, police have unchecked powers and forensics are rarely used in reaching verdicts that vary wildly depending on region, party influence and a defendant's connections.
Sixty-eight offenses, including such nonviolent crimes as tax evasion and pornography distribution, carry the death penalty. Officials are considering reducing the number of crimes punishable by execution, but say corruption, bribery and national security violations might still lead to death sentences.
The reforms, advocated by a growing lobby of Chinese lawyers and scholars, are part of a policy that officials call "kill fewer, kill carefully." It calls for improved trial and review processes, and requires that all death penalty appeals be heard in open court.
Experts are divided over how much substance the reforms carry.
"For China, it's an exciting breakthrough," said Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor and adjunct senior fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Death penalty reforms will lead the way for improved procedures for other major criminal cases."
Others say the Chinese legal system still lacks transparency.
"So you have the return of an important piece of review," said Sharon Hom, director of the New York-based group Human Rights in China. "But you're reviewing a system that is still politicized, that still does not welcome independent judges and where lawyers raising questions about abuse or torture are being harassed and beaten up."
Human Rights in China released a report in 2006 documenting the abuse of defense lawyers. From 1997 to 2002, more than 500 were jailed.
In 2006, a judge "beat and choked" a lawyer for filing a case. "I am the court, the court is me, If I say the case will not be filed, the case will not be filed," the report quoted the judge as saying.
A year before, a lawyer visiting a client was "beaten by five unidentified men and then taken into police custody," the report said. The lawyer was freed only when his client's trial was over.
Li Fangping, 33, a Beijing defense lawyer, got involved in death cases after seeing a man sentenced to death for stealing a cellphone. Each time he tried to defend himself, the judge silenced him. Li vowed to help change the system.
He has suffered some hearing loss because of beatings by police officers during subsequent cases. "In a big case, if you try to be aggressive in defending your client, that can often lead to trouble for you," he said.