BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top court on Friday overturned a death sentence for a self-made Chinese businesswoman convicted in a multi-million dollar scheme to bilk investors, in a contentious fraud case that sparked sympathy for the self-made daughter of a peasant.
Wu Ying, 31, was convicted by a lower court in 2009 for cheating investors out of 380 million yuan ($60.3 million) by offering annualized returns as high as 180 percent, having spent the money on clothing and lavish dinners as well as buying four BMW cars and a Ferrari with a price tag of 3.75 million yuan.
But China's Supreme Court overturned the death sentence, which the country uses for a variety of serious economic crimes in addition to capital murder cases. A sentence of jail time and death in China usually means the punishment will be reduced to life in prison.
Wu became something of a folk hero in China and even had her case mentioned by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Many people, especially on China's vibrant microblogging sites, believed she did not deserve the death penalty for a crime that was seen as more akin to money lending than a pyramid scheme.
Zhang Sizhi, the 85-year-old defense lawyer of Mao Zedong's widow Jiang Qing, was also among Wu's supporters, and argued that Wu did not defraud investors because she did not flee or "squander" the funds.
While the Supreme Court quashed the death conviction, it still concluded that Wu "seriously undermined national financial management order with particularly serious harm and shall be punished in accordance with the law". It also told the original court to review the punishment.
Local courts accused her of illegally raising 770 million yuan, between 2005 and 2007, from 11 people who in turn sought money from other 100-strong investors.
Wu's humble beginnings in business started when she opened a hair salon in 1997 to become the president of her own, unregulated, investment firm, Bense Holding Group.
Beijing has frowned on such unregulated investment operations and is running a program to bring private capital into the state-controlled banking sector.
($1 = 6.3039 Chinese yuan)
(Reporting by Zhou Xin and Nick Edwards; Editing by Ed Lane)