Li Xiangnan stands trial at the Intermediate People's Court on Wednesday in the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou on Wednesday, March 23.
Wenzhou Intermediate People's Court
Li Xiangnan stands trial at the Intermediate People's Court on Wednesday in the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou on Wednesday, March 23.

Story highlights

Li Xiangnan, the dead girl's boyfriend, has pleaded guilty to intentional homicide

Victim's father Shao Chunsheng tells CNN he wants the death penalty

Beijing CNN —  

A Chinese student may face the death penalty after pleading guilty to killing his girlfriend while they were both studying in Iowa.

Shao Tong, 20, who had gone to the U.S. to study engineering, was strangled to death in Iowa in September 2014, her body stuffed in the trunk of her own car.

Her boyfriend, Li Xiangnan, who fled to China shortly after she was killed, stood trial at the Intermediate People’s Court on Wednesday in the eastern Chinese city of Wenzhou.

He begged the court to give him a lenient sentence and said he deeply regretted the crime, calling it irrational and impulsive, according to a court statement.

The court didn’t say when the verdict would be announced. According to Chinese law, the sentence for intentional homicide could range from 10 years to capital punishment.

Murder in the heartland, heartbreak in China

Shao Chunsheng and his wife Yang Xue, the victim’s parents, traveled to Wenzhou to attend the trial but were too emotional and weak to make it to the court room, their lawyer Ren Shixin said.

In court, Li said he was “deeply in love” with Shao Tong but said she was having affairs with other men.

He denied the crime was premeditated and said he bought a one-way plane ticket two days before her death because he was under enormous pressure and wanted to return to China.

’No forgiveness’

Before the trial began, Shao told CNN that he thought Li should be sentenced to death for the alleged murder of his only child.

He said he had met with Li’s parents, who begged for his forgiveness and offered compensation.

“I wouldn’t forgive him however much money they offered,” Shao said.

However, Ren, the Shao’s lawyer, said they accepted 2 million yuan ($308,000) in compensation from the family right before the trial started. Li’s lawyer Sheng Shaolin confirmed the amount.

Shao said by text message he and his wife felt compelled to accept the money even though his lawyer said it could result in a more lenient sentence.

“Deep down, Shao Tong’s parents will never forgive Li Xiangnan. What he did was a devastating blow to them. Nothing will heal their broken hearts,” said Zhang, a family friend who attended the trial on their behalf.

Tong Shao studied engineering at Iowa State University.
Courtesy Shao family
Tong Shao studied engineering at Iowa State University.

Two Iowa state detectives and the case prosecutor from Iowa City have traveled to Wenzhou for the trial.

There is no death penalty in Iowa and the lead prosecutor there had expressed their hope to Chinese investigators that the case not be pursued as a capital one.

David Gonzalez, the lead Iowa police investigator for the case, said his priority was to support the Shao family.

“Whatever happens to Mr. Li is not up to us at this point, that’s up to the court,” he said.

“I can only imagine if it was my child, if I was in the same position, what I would want in my own justice.”

Rare cooperation

Iowa authorities have credited an April 2015 CNN story with drawing attention to the investigation, which had stalled because there is no extradition treaty between China and the United States.

In that piece, Shao’s father urged both U.S. and Chinese authorities to do more to seek justice for his daughter.

Investigators in Iowa said they felt hamstrung because there was little precedent for such a case – when a Chinese national flees the United States and is wanted in connection with the killing of another Chinese national.

Suspect in Iowa killing to be tried in China

However, the case has since been hailed a rare example of cooperation between U.S. and Chinese law enforcement agencies.

Gonzalez told CNN Iowa authorities have worked “very, very well together” with Chinese law enforcement at both local and state levels, adding that the important thing was for Li to be brought to justice, no matter whether in the U.S. or China.

“I have nothing but good things to say about the cooperation that we received from the Chinese government.”

Heartache

Shao Tong, an Iowa State University international student, was first reported missing by her roommate on September 18, 2014. It wasn’t until September 26 that police in Iowa found her body.

By then Li, a “person of interest” sought for questioning by Iowa authorities, had already bought a one-way ticket and returned to China.

He turned himself in to Chinese police in May 2015 and was charged with intentional homicide in June.

The case attracted a huge amount interest in China and particularly among the 300,000 Chinese students in the United States.

Yang, Shao Tong’s mom, said she was too emotional to speak about the case.

“I’m bitter, very bitter. My heart aches,” she said via text message.

CNN’s Wayne Drash in Atlanta contributed to this report