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Nanny Who Set Fatal Fire in China Is Sentenced to Death

BEIJING — A Chinese court sentenced a nanny to death Friday for setting a fire that killed three children and their mother, in a case that has prompted a national discussion about greed, trust, inequality and neglect.

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IRIS ZHAO, New York Times

BEIJING — A Chinese court sentenced a nanny to death Friday for setting a fire that killed three children and their mother, in a case that has prompted a national discussion about greed, trust, inequality and neglect.

The nanny, Mo Huanjing, 35, was convicted of arson for igniting her employer’s apartment in June. Authorities said Mo, who had more than $9,500 in gambling debt, had planned to start a fire and then extinguish it, hoping that the family would reward her financially for coming to their rescue.

In its decision Friday, the Hangzhou Intermediate People’s Court in eastern China called Mo’s motive “despicable” and said that she had “seriously damaged public security and caused social harm.”

The father of the children, Lin Shengbin, who was away on a business trip at the time of the fire, attended the sentencing Friday. On his blog, titled “Wife and Children in Heaven,” he praised the court’s decision.

“The devil finally got punished by the law,” he wrote. “I’ve been tortured day and night for more than 200 days. Today, there is finally resolution.”

The case touched a nerve among the growing ranks of China’s urban middle class, many of whom depend on less well-off workers from rural areas for child care, cooking and cleaning.

Lin, a successful entrepreneur, lived in a $3 million apartment in the middle of Hangzhou, a rich technology capital. Mo, who started working as a live-in nanny for the family in 2016, was a migrant from the southern province of Guangdong.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, some expressed sympathy for Mo, saying she was overburdened by debt and desperate.

But public opinion turned decidedly against Mo amid news reports that portrayed her as a gambling addict who had stolen and pawned the family’s jewelry, and squandered money the family had lent her.

The reaction to the court’s decision Friday was overwhelmingly positive.

“If she died 100 times it wouldn’t be enough,” wrote one user on Weibo, a microblogging platform.

Mo was shown in state news media reports standing solemnly in a courtroom. She did not speak at the sentencing, according to reports.

In a letter made public during her trial, Mo expressed remorse, saying, “If my death will make everything start over again, I’m willing to be sentenced to death.”

It was unclear if Mo would appeal the decision. Under Chinese law, the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing must review death sentences.

While the Chinese government says it has reduced the use of the death penalty in recent years, it does not release statistics, and China is still believed to execute far more prisoners than any other country. Critics of the legal system argue that the government uses the penalty disproportionately against poorer people.

The case of Mo also brought attention to shoddy construction and lax safety at many residential buildings in China, another concern of middle-class families.

Authorities found that a fire hydrant outside the Lin family building, which is managed by Greentown Service Group Co., lacked sufficient water pressure and a place for firefighters to park. Greentown has rejected the accusations.

A lawyer for Mo, Dang Linshan, said developers should also be held responsible for the tragedy. He accused court officials of bias, saying they had denied his request to hear testimony from dozens of firefighters who responded at the scene, according to news reports.

“Justice isn’t served by simply putting the accused to death,” he told Caixin, a prominent Chinese newsmagazine.

Dang declined to be interviewed Friday.

The court said in its decision that Mo had investigated methods to start fires and searched “Will arson lead to prison?” online before committing the crime. Officials said she had stolen more than $28,000 worth of belongings from the family to pay off debts, including jewelry and watches, and that the family had lent her more than $18,000.

Mo started the fire by lighting books in the living room, officials said. When it grew out of control, she fled the apartment, leaving the children, including two boys and a girl, along with their mother, Zhu Xiaozhen. She then called police, who took her in for questioning.

Relatives of Lin said that he was still struggling with the pain of losing his family. Lin’s online clothing business was named for his children, and they served as models for his brand.

During one recent courtroom hearing, according to news reports, he threw a flask at Mo, hitting a court officer instead.

“He can’t go to sleep when he thinks of them,” an uncle, Lin Shengfeng, said by telephone. “He doesn’t seem to be getting better. It still takes time.”

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