Asianweek, News Report,
Lisa Wong Macabasco, Jan 05, 2005
After serving 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, David Wong took another leap toward freedom on Friday Dec. 10, 2004, when Clinton County District Attorney Richard Cantwell dropped murder charges against him. Wong’s conviction had been overturned on an appeal in October due in part to the potential bias of the trial judge, Timothy Lawliss. The judge has since recused himself from the retrial.
In a letter from Clinton County Jail, Wong said the victory belonged to his support committee and his lawyers, whom he called “the true heroes.”
“My freedom did not come easy, but I’m happy I’m now able to put my nightmare behind me, and I’m excited for my freedom and the prospect of my future,” Wong wrote.
He now awaits the court’s official ruling and faces a new struggle against a pending order of deportation.
“His life is the biggest waste of all,” says Wong’s niece, Fei Yeung. She felt relieved — but also angry that he has spent so much of his life incarcerated. “I’m 27, and I’m ready to begin my life and career. He’s lost all that. He’s in his 40s, and he’s going to start his life now? It’s not fair.”
Yeung says Wong missed his sister’s wedding and his father’s funeral while in jail. “My family and I have lost a beloved uncle, brother and son,” she says.
Wong’s supporters now face the difficult task of preventing his deportation due to his status as an undocumented non-citizen. Jaykumar Menon, Wong’s lawyer, says he does not know of a case in which someone who was wrongfully convicted and subsequently ordered deported was allowed to stay in the United States. Wayne Lum says the committee was pursuing political and diplomatic channels to fight the deportation order and admitted, “Legally, it’s very difficult to overcome.”
“After 17 years, the David Wong Support Committee and his allies in the community will not allow Wong to be deported,” says Kwong Eng.
Wong’s 20-year odyssey through the criminal justice system is an eye-opening look at one Asian in America in the between the cracks in the law. His story is the lesson of a man wrongfully convicted and trapped at the nexus of race, immigration, crime and the law.
Coming to America
Wong is one of three children raised by their mother (above) in the Fujian province and later in Hong Kong. He came to the United States in the early 1980s as a teenager, working long shifts at different restaurants at below minimum wage.
Arrested and Sent to Prison: June 1984
At 21 years old, as a busboy in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Wong is arrested for participating with co-workers in an armed robbery of his employer’s Long Island house in 1983. Wong is sent to Clinton Correctional Facility in northeastern New York to serve an 8-to-25-year sentence.
A Brutal Murder: March 1986
On the afternoon of March 12, 1986, Tyrone Julius, a 32-year-old inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility serving a sentence for second-degree murder, is stabbed in the neck with a five-inch blade in the middle of the prison yard and dies 11 days later. Wong and Tse Kin Cheung, an inmate from Hong Kong, are the only Chinese inmates — and the only ones searched out of the 70 to 100 inmates present at the time of the stabbing. No weapon and no blood are found on either man.
Found Guilty: July 1987
Wong, who speaks little English and claims he had never met Julius, is tried for Julius’ murder by an all-white jury in Clinton County Court. Four inmates testify to Wong’s innocence. The prosecution’s case is based on the testimony of two witnesses: Ryan LaPierre, a corrections officer who viewed the scene through binoculars from a tower more than 100 yards away, and inmate Peter DellFava. Wong is convicted and sentenced to an additional 25-years-to-life for second-degree murder. Cheung writes to prominent Asian American activists telling them that Wong was framed.
Yuri Kochiyama Organizes the David Wong Support Committee: 1990
Yuri Kochiyama (above), a longtime civil rights activist and staunch political-prisoners advocate, visits Wong in prison. Kochiyama creates the David Wong Support Committee, operating out of her Harlem apartment.
‘New York Times’ Eye-opener: March 1999
A New York Times article reveals new anecdotal evidence suggesting Wong is innocent. Reporter David W. Chen (left) quotes former prison employees who say Wong’s innocence was common knowledge at the prison. Former inmates who witnessed the murder said it was an act of revenge by a former rival. Cheung says inmates were scared to speak up for Wong because they feared for their safety.
Julius’ widow, Sharon Julius, states she never heard of Wong or his conviction for the murder of her husband. She also says she received threatening letters and phone calls well after Wong was arrested — telling her to stop investigating the case — and therefore assumed his murderer was still at large.
Wong loses every major appeal since his 1987 conviction, but Wong’s lawyers at Manhattan’s Center for Constitutional Rights continue to question the credibility of witnesses and cite misconduct by the prosecutor, errors in Wong’s defense and the lack of an adequate translator. LaPierre admitted in his testimony that he did not see the stabbing or the weapon. DellFava may have tried to gain early parole in exchange for his testimony. Wong’s original lawyers also failed to interview witnesses who identified the attackers as two Hispanic men.
Wong also did not have access to a translator who spoke his Fuzhou dialect; he had to use a translator who spoke Mandarin instead, which he barely knew. The Times article quotes Wong’s translator during the trial, Jo-An Ting, who had never worked as a translator before and admitted to feeling nervous and unprofessional during the case: “If some outside person evaluated my work and said that I was not competent, then I accept,” she says.
After the publication of the article, the Times receives a letter from a prisoner who claims to have witnessed Julius’ murder and asserted that Wong was innocent and nowhere near the scene at the time.
Appeal Rejected: April 16, 1999
A State Court of Appeals judge rejects hearing an appeal on Wong’s case, saying there is “no question of law.”
Within the year, Manhattan private investigator Joseph Barry locates DellFava. DellFava admits to having lied at Wong’s trial in order to secure a parole recommendation and a prison transfer. He says that a corrections officer persuaded him to blame Wong because he knew little English and had few friends in prison.
The Tide Turns: April 2002
Almost one dozen current or former inmates sign affidavits or tell investigators that Julius was murdered by Nelson Gutierrez, a longtime rival with a record that included drug charges and first-degree manslaughter. One former peer counselor and inmate legally swears that Gutierrez confessed to the murder to him. DellFava recants his testimony, and LaPierre, while still adamant about Wong’s guilt, supports a new trial.
The wives of both Gutierrez and Julius verify that the two were rivals and had an earlier altercation at Rikers Island. In May, Sharon Julius signs an affidavit that says Gutierrez killed her husband. Inmates come forward who say they saw the stabbing but said nothing out of fear of retaliation. Gutierrez won parole in 1994 and returned back to the Dominican Republic, where he died of an apparent drug overdose in May 2000.
The case is one of very few taken up by criminal law professor William E. Hellerstein, head of Brooklyn Law School’s Second Look Clinic, which focuses on investigating wrongful convictions.
“It was clear to me and to the students that David Wong was innocent from the beginning of the case,” Hellerstein says. “The facts didn’t make any sense going the other way.”
A Glimmer of a Chance: Jan. 7, 2003
Judge Timothy Lawliss, acting judge of the Clinton County Court in Plattsburgh, N.Y., agrees to hear the fresh evidence in the case and then decide whether the murder conviction still stands.
Reversing the Story: April 2003
At the evidentiary hearing, DellFava admits he lied in order “to get the hell out of that prison” even though no official deal was made. Three former Clinton inmates, including friends of Gutierrez, testify to seeing Gutierrez stab Julius.
Judge Deals a Blow: October 2003
Lawliss denies Wong a new trial, ruling there is not enough evidence and questioning the credibility of the witnesses. Clinton County District Attorney Richard Cantwell now says DellFava’s past fraud and perjury convictions made him an untrustworthy witness.
Judge in Question: Dec. 2, 2003
The New York State Appellate Division in Albany reviews the case. The court looks at whether Lawliss should have recused himself from the trial because of his close connections to the prosecutor, who used to be his law partner.
A Ray of Hope: Oct. 21, 2004
A five-judge panel in New York’s Appellate Division unanimously overturns Wong’s murder conviction based on the new evidence. Unlike the county court, the state court does not find DellFava’s testimony “incredible.” The decision questions LaPierre’s testimony because of his great distance from the murder scene and says the testimony of the former inmates should not be discounted. The case is sent back to Clinton County Court for a new trial.
Behind the Scenes of the Case: The David Wong Support Committee
The David Wong Support Committee was formed in 1990 by longtime civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama, but members say it is often Wong who inspires the committee to stay optimistic.
“He’s the spirit of the committee — he keeps everyone else up when we’re down,” says Siddhartha Joag, an artist and member. “He’s so selfless. He’s constantly asking what we’re doing to support others. He’s not just indulging in his own case, even though he’s lost most of his life for no reason. It shakes you.”
Joag says his impression of Wong upon meeting him was that he was calm, friendly, well-read and “just a good guy.”
On Sept. 8, three dozen supporters went to Albany to show their support at the Appellate Division hearing. Even though none of the committee knew Wong before his case, many have developed a close relationship with him.
“A lot of us feel personally attached to him,” Joag says. “He’s a friend.”
“He’s using his case as a vehicle for change in the system,” Joag says. “He doesn’t even believe in his own exoneration being important. For every one David Wong that gets a retrial, there must be 1,000 that are on death row for a crime they didn’t commit.”
While Joag admits it has been difficult to get support from the Asian American community for someone who is both an undocumented immigrant and a convicted felon, William E. Hellerstein, Wong’s lawyer, says the community’s support has been strong and that support for the case shouldn’t stop there.
“The fact the Asian American community has been so supportive has been a blessing,” Hellerstein says. “The entire world should care about this case. Any decent, right-thinking human being should care.”
“This is a grievous injustice,” Hellerstein states. “This man is innocent. Everyone knows it.”