Ruling that two Korean Christian missionaries who performed a deadly exorcism were trying to heal, not harm, a judge cleared them of murder charges Wednesday in a case experts called a potential landmark in California criminal law.
Ending a three-week trial in Malibu that he said raised "novel and significant issues" of religion and culture, Superior Court Judge James A. Albracht found Jae-Whoa Chung, 50, and Sung Soo Choi, 47, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the stomping death of Chung's wife during a demon-cleansing ritual called ansukido.
Chung and Choi have been jailed since their arrests July 4 in the slaying of 53-year-old Kyung-Ja Chung. They face no more than four years in state prison. Had they been convicted of second-degree murder, they would have faced 15 years to life.
Declaring victory, defense attorneys said they will ask Albracht to release their clients on probation when they return to court next week for sentencing.
Legal analysts called Albracht's ruling bold--even courageous--given the disfavor with which religious and cultural defenses have been viewed during the past decade.
Opinions differed, however, on the potential impact of the decision. One analyst said he was troubled by it.
"This case pushed the envelope and may be seen as a landmark case," said Laurie Levenson, a dean at Loyola Law School. "I do expect the ruling in this case will prompt other defendants to raise similar defenses. But I don't think the courts will want to open the door for defendants to claim that their cultural background led them to beat a woman to death."
Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor, said cultural and religious defenses are bound to fail in court unless they specifically address the key concern of homicide law--the defendant's state of mind.
In fact, Arenella believes, not allowing evidence of cultural norms and religious practices could provide grounds for a higher court to overturn a murder conviction.
Attorneys and legal analysts agreed that Albracht bucked the current legal trend by recognizing the cultural and religious strains in the case, even welcoming testimony from a cultural anthropologist who appeared as an expert witness for the defense.
Despite a horrifying outcome, Albracht found, the missionaries had acted with the best of intentions. Their religious zeal led them to repeatedly crush Chung's abdomen and chest with their hands and feet--conduct that was reckless but not malicious, the judge determined.
Calling the case "a tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude," Albracht found that the men may have been misguided and blinded by their religious zeal, but were focused on "saving her from the demons they believed possessed her."
Albracht's was the first verdict rendered in a criminal case resulting from a demonic exorcism, attorneys and legal experts believe. Two other recent cases--one in Oakland, the other near Chicago--were resolved by plea bargains.
Chung seemed stunned by the verdict, but later managed a smile for his attorneys, Robert Sheahen and Christopher Lee. Choi, handcuffed to his seat, fished for a handkerchief with his free hand and wiped tears from his eyes.
The Chungs' son and daughter, ages 16 and 18 respectively, seemed relieved that their father was not convicted of murder.
"These are men of God," defense attorney Sheahen said. "They were doing the work of God. They were doing what they honestly believed was necessary to drive the demon out."
"My client was relieved," said Jim Barnes, who represented Choi. "He was happy. He was very gratified that the judge had seen this for what it was--good acts gone bad without an intent to kill."
Outside the courtroom, Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg said he was satisfied with winning a conviction--and with the judge's recognition that the killing of Kyung-Ja Chung was unlawful.
The prosecutor had argued vigorously for second-degree murder convictions, contending that by continually pressing and stomping on the woman, the men showed a conscious disregard for her life--no matter if their intent was to heal her or harm her.
Exorcist Choi even advised the husband that to cure her, they'd have to subject her to suffering comparable to journeying through hell.
According to testimony, 16 of her ribs were broken, the muscles in her thighs were so damaged the tissue had died, internal organs were displaced and crushed, and a vein leading to her heart was torn.
The men received ample notice that their actions were endangering the woman, Goldberg argued, even "from the devil himself," who is said to have warned that he would not leave without killing Chung.
Goldberg's position was supported by USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who said he found it difficult to fathom how anyone--no matter what their cultural background--could use lethal force on another person and not be aware of the possibility that he or she was being harmed.
"It's hard not to understand this manslaughter verdict as anything other than an implicit acceptance of the cultural defense," Chemerinsky said.
In his ruling, Albracht noted that Kyung-Ja Chung's crushed chest was not noticed by paramedics or emergency room doctors.
The judge distinguished between the actions of the missionaries, who were engaged in an otherwise lawful endeavor, and those of other defendants who have been convicted of murder under similar legal theories. Those convicted of murder, the judge said, participated in "wanton, antisocial conduct" such as child abuse, repeated drunk driving or quack medicine for profit.
Chung died after two exorcism rituals that began the previous afternoon at a home in Koreatown and continued, after a break for church services, at a Century City condo borrowed from a church member.
According to testimony, everyone involved in the ritual--known as ansukido--fervently believed that Chung was possessed by demons. Ansukido combines Korean folk traditions with the charismatic Christian healing practice of laying on hands.
Chung agreed to the exorcism, according to testimony, because the demons were making her arrogant and disobedient to her husband.
The ritual involved prayer, hymns, laying on hands, speaking in tongues and invoking the name of Jesus Christ.
The Chungs were Korean missionaries based in Bangladesh. Choi was based in China. All had traveled to Los Angeles to report on their work to some of their sponsoring churches.
PHOTO: Sung Soo Choi wipes a tear after manslaughter verdict is read.; PHOTO: Bailiff removes handcuffs from Jae-Whoa Chung after verdict was delivered. At left, lawyer Christopher Lee.; PHOTOGRAPHER: GEORGE WILHELM / Los Angeles Times
Credit: TIMES STAFF WRITER
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