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'Milkshake Murder' retrial tests Hong Kong rule of law

We marvel at Hong Kong every time we visit it.

Not for its glitz and glamour, restaurants, or shopping.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

Hong Kong is prized as much for its rule of law as for its iconic skyline.

But because even though it sits on the edge of mainland China, was handed back to Beijing in 1997 and has more than its fair share of folks kowtowing to the central government up north, it's still not China.

In Hong Kong, we can access anything we want on the Internet without having to resort to using a proxy server.

In Hong Kong, a ragtag group of Falun Gong followers has a permanent stakeout by the Wanchai ferry pier.

In Hong Kong, large banners decrying the banks or injustices decorate prominent buildings in the Central business district.

In Hong Kong, people still take to the streets to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or rally to secure the release of imprisoned mainland Chinese activists like Zhao Lianhai.

And it’s the place where many mainland Chinese students who don’t want to study in the West will choose to pursue graduate studies in journalism, because while Hong Kong “is Chinese,” one such student told me recently, “it is not China.”

Retrial tests Hong Kong's judiciary system
This tiny miracle of a place has managed to maintain its identity as an autonomous territory that values Western freedoms despite all the death-knell cries leading up to the handover from the British to Beijing 14 years ago.  And, critically, it still enjoys a legal system independent of mainland China, one which is based on English common law.

But it’s a precious balance.

A retrial for Nancy Kissel, a Michigan native charged with the 2003 murder of her husband, Robert, a Merrill Lynch investment banker from New Jersey started Tuesday.  His body was found bundled up in a carpet in the basement storeroom of their luxury apartment in an exclusive hillside compound overlooking Hong Kong island. 

It was alleged back then that Kissel had drugged him with a milkshake laced with sedatives, thereby earning the case the “Milkshake Murder” moniker, and then bludgeoned him with a brass ornament.  She was convicted of murder in 2005 and sentenced to prison for life; her subsequent appeal in 2008 was rejected. 

However, early last year, the Court of Final Appeal – Hong Kong’s highest court – overturned the conviction, citing a series of errors in the first trial.

Although the murder case drew widespread news coverage for apparently underscoring the mix of sex, money, and drugs in Hong Kong’s expat high-life society, it’s now attracting attention for an entirely different reason.

The value of rule of law
“People have begun to question - because of the Kissel and other cases - whether the system is meting out equal justice to everybody,” said Francis Moriarty, an RTHK senior political reporter who also chairs the Press Freedom Committee of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong.

Another high-profile case involving the niece of a local judge of the Court of Final Appeal fueled perceptions that a different set of rules applies to the territory’s elites or wealthy.  Last year, Amina Bokhary was handed a one-year probation order after being convicted three separate times for assaulting police officers.  The sentence provoked an outcry in Hong Kong for its perceived leniency, particularly as it was the third time she had committed such an offence.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

The Parkview residential complex where the Kissels lived commands striking views of Hong Kong.

“People look at this [Kissel] case and say, wait a minute, if Mrs. Wong in Tin Shui Wai just under financial pressure and whatever reasons may have been…picks up the chopper and does him in, is she going to get a chance for a trial and an appeal and a Court of Final Appeal and a retrial and a stay of proceedings?” said Moriarty.  “People know that money buys you certain things. That’s accepted.  But if the disparity that’s given to the ordinary person and the justice that’s given to those who can afford it is too great, then it adds to the social tensions.”

But others argue that the Kissel case does not show up the Hong Kong legal system in any way.  If anything, it’s the opposite.

“This is a retrial of the whole issue, of whether or not [Kissel is] guilty of murder,” said Ian Candy, a former principal magistrate and now Senior Teaching Fellow in the School of Law at the City University of Hong Kong.  “It doesn’t test the system in any way.  It’s an example of the operation of the system.”

Nevertheless, the Kissel case is being closely watched.

“The one thing that people hold onto here is the rule of law.  The rule of law is very important in Hong Kong, because it’s the biggest thing that separates out Hong Kong from China,” said Moriarty. “And so it’s precious.”