Many democracies start with aspirations to rectify wrongs that occurred under the preceding authoritarian regime. To what extent can a new democracy address political repression and violence by dictators, given that key actors from the past often remain politically powerful? What determines the success of those efforts? We construct and analyze a novel data set on 102 retrials of allegedly fabricated espionage cases in South Korea to explain the political conditions under which a democratic judiciary reverses past errors. We find that the time since democratization, a leader’s policy drive for transitional justice, and the degree of fabrication in the past all affect retrial acquittal rates. We also find that judges who were appointed under the authoritarian regime are less likely to nullify past verdicts. Furthermore, national survey analysis suggests that the overturning of past fabricated verdicts significantly enhances citizens’ overall trust in the judiciary.

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