August 23, 2023
TAIPEI – Kneeling in front of a scrum of reporters, an anguished couple asked for their son to be put to death as soon as possible.
“Only by doing so may the pains inflicted on the victims and the wounded and their families be slightly eased,” the sobbing father said outside a Taipei metro station. “Although he is our child, the crime he committed is unforgivable.”
The mother bowed repeatedly, her head hitting the ground each time.
The scene dates back to May 2014, days after their then 21-year-old son Cheng Chieh went on a stabbing spree on the Taipei subway, killing four people and injuring 24 others.
The incident was met with shock and distress throughout Taiwan, where violent crime is rare. It also sparked fear across the capital, Taipei, bringing metro ridership down by nearly one million in the 10 days that followed.
It reignited fierce debate over the island’s use of capital punishment, with angry Taiwanese demanding that Cheng pay for the crime with his life, while rights groups called for the death penalty to be abolished.
Ultimately, he was executed with three gunshots to the heart in May 2016, less than three weeks after the Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. This sparked controversy and rumours of political gain, as it seemed unusually expeditious.
“By killing this person, some people would argue that the sensation of justice is emotionally satisfying. Yeah, but I say, for how long?” Cheng’s defence attorney, Mr Leon Huang, told The Straits Times in the fifth episode of the True Crimes of Asia podcast series.
Those who campaigned against Cheng’s death sentence argued that killing him failed to solve the bigger issue, which was how society had turned a blind eye to socially isolated and mentally unstable individuals like him, who had long harboured thoughts of murder and suicide.
While the court had ruled that Cheng did not meet the clinical classification of insanity when he committed the crime, the topic of mental health and violence would continue to resurface.
Within the next two years, the island saw at least two more high-profile acts of random killing, both with mental instability apparently playing a role.
Still, there is a lack of public awareness of mental health issues in Taiwan due to the stigma around the topic.
Cheng’s attack began around 4.22pm on May 21, 2014, as the train departed from Longshan Temple Station in Taipei for Jiangzicui Station in New Taipei City on the blue metro line.
The university student picked the route because it was the longest distance between any two stations in the city’s metro system, making the nearly four-minute ride also the longest one.
Brandishing two knives – a Swiss Army pocket knife and a 30cm titanium steel knife – Cheng began by stabbing three sleeping passengers.
He then moved between carriages and continued stabbing passengers randomly.
When the train pulled into Jiangzicui Station, people reportedly rushed out of the carriages, shouting for those on the platform to flee.
Cheng attempted to attack more people on the platform. However, station staff and passers-by threw items at him and cornered him before the police arrived.
Four people died – two women aged 47 and 62, and two men aged 26 and 28. Twenty-four others were injured, including 10 in critical condition.
During his arrest, Cheng remained expressionless.
“The suspect told us that he had wanted to ‘do something big’ since elementary school,” New Taipei’s then police chief Chen Kuo-en told reporters.
Cheng also said that he did not want to live because “life is full of pain and pressure”.
Investigations revealed that Cheng had harboured thoughts of killing people since he was 10 years old, sparked by an incident in which his teacher forced him to apologise after wrongly accusing him of bothering a classmate.
In junior high, he carried a knife around for a month, looking for an opportunity to stab a teacher.
Although he enjoyed some happy years in high school, the dark thoughts crept back in as he struggled through college – dropping out of a military academy and then failing to keep up as an engineering student at Tunghai University, said his lawyer, Mr Huang.
Cheng never had close friends and mostly kept to himself. He penned numerous blog posts about wanting to kill – not just others, but himself too.
The university was alerted, but Cheng brushed off concerns, saying he was writing fictional horror stories. He also failed to show up for a formal counselling session.
A psychological assessment used in court determined that he exhibited personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder, and had social alienation tendencies.
After two years of conversations with his client, Mr Huang remains convinced that reform could have been possible for Cheng, and that the death penalty should have been averted.
Describing Cheng as “very lonely”, the lawyer told ST: “Before he died, he said he probably would not have done what he did if there was someone ever fighting for him in his life, like we did.”
Cheng was executed on May 10, 2016 – just 18 days after the Supreme Court upheld his death sentence.
The justices said he did not exhibit signs of a psychiatric disorder or loss of mental faculties at the time of the attack.
Then Justice Minister Luo Ying-shay defended the court’s decision, saying that the crime had created widespread fear and that Cheng’s execution helped restore law and order in society.
Victims’ families also said that justice was served.
Opinion surveys indicate a consistently high level of support for capital punishment in Taiwan, which brought back the death penalty in 2010 after a five-year hiatus. Rights groups, however, argue that such polls are often too simplistic for the complex topic.
Some critics questioned whether there were political motivations behind the extraordinary speediness of the case. They noted that the time frame between the court’s decision and his execution was the shortest ever since Taiwan lifted martial law in 1987.
This fuelled speculation that Ms Luo had wanted to claim credit for quelling public fury over Cheng’s crime.
Mental health stigma
More disturbingly, Cheng’s death sentence failed to deter other random killings from happening.
In May 2015, unemployed 29-year-old Kung Chung-an slit the throat of an eight-year-old in the toilet of her school, claiming that he had heard voices urging him to do so. The court ruled that he had schizophrenia but never sought help, as he lacked awareness of the disorder.
In March 2016, Wang Ching-yu, 33, decapitated a four-year-old girl in front of her mother in broad daylight, while having hallucinations. He had sought psychiatric treatment once but never registered for a mental disability card to receive health benefits, possibly due to the negative associations.
Both perpetrators were sentenced to life imprisonment, though many called for their death.
Experts said the cases pointed to the need for greater mental health awareness in Taiwan, where little attention is paid to emotional and mental health.
While there has been no similar cold-blooded killing in recent years, there is still a perennial stigma around mental illnesses.
Taiwanese often avoid seeking help if they struggle in this area, said Dr Catherine Chu, a psychologist at National Chiayi University. In other instances, people are not even aware that they require help.
A February 2023 survey by the Child Welfare League Foundation showed 23 per cent of Taiwanese high school students reported experiencing severe depression, but only 5.6 per cent said they would seek professional counselling.
Parents, too, are often “in denial” about their children suffering from mental health issues, dismissing warning signs as growing pains, Dr Chu said.
Although Cheng’s case prompted calls for more attention on troubled young people, there was no follow-up action, she said. “People try not to think about it again, and just think ‘he’s dead, he was a weirdo, and he was strange’. People try to turn a blind eye and try to pretend nothing (similar will) happen again.”
Mr Huang attributed this to Taiwanese people’s longing for xiao ri zi or “little days”, meaning a quiet and stable life. Anyone behaving outside social norms is seen as problematic and simply ignored.
There is also a common misunderstanding that anyone without an official record of mental disorder – as was the case with Cheng – would not require mental health assistance, experts say.
The silver lining is that Taiwan has improved accessibility to help for mental health issues within local communities in recent years, with affordable facilities located within 30 minutes’ travel for 86 per cent of the population.
Based on government statistics, 2.8 million Taiwanese sought treatment for mental health issues in 2019.
In May 2022, the health ministry established a new department dedicated to mental health programmes, which previously had been combined with other medical specialities.
A number of non-governmental mental health support groups have also sprouted islandwide.
But experts say that ultimately, such avenues are useless if those struggling with mental health issues constantly feel persecuted by the larger community.
Younger people are particularly vulnerable, Dr Chu said, as some may choose to retreat entirely online and shut themselves away.
“The true connection of humankind would never be outdated,” she added. “We can try to be more sensitive to these people, and try to reach out more to them. A kind gesture could help or save these people.”