Dennis Riordan, one of the California’s best known defense attorneys, has been retained to represent Nan-Hui Jo, the Korean immigrant convicted last month of abducting her American-born daughter Hwi, now 6.
Riordan, whose clients have included Barry Bonds, O.J. Simpson and Lodi terrorism suspect Hamid Hayat, was described in a 2006 Sacramento Bee article as “one of the nation’s best known lawyers of last resort.” Considered one of the nation’s premier appellate lawyers, the San Francisco-based attorney has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court.
Riordan’s appointment could result in a motion for a new trial for Jo, who was convicted by a Yolo County jury on March 3 after her first trial in December 2014 ended in a hung jury. Jo, 43, is facing possible deportation. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service had put an immigration hold on Jo, whose permission to stay in the United States as a student expired long ago.
The high-profile child abduction case pitting the single mom against her ex-lover and Hwi’s father, Iraqi war veteran Jesse Charlton of West Sacramento, has generated international interest. Riordan has been retained by women’s rights groups supporting Jo, who has spent 180 days in jail without seeing her daughter.
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Hwi now lives with Charlton, a substitute teacher. The #StandWithNanHui Campaign now has well over 8,000 supporters from Northern California to Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Seoul, said activist Hyejin Shim.
“The big question right now is when is she going to see her child,” Shim said.
Jo, who met Charlton when both were photography students at Sacramento City College, testified she took Hwi to Seoul, Korea, in 2009 after Charlton refused to marry her and she was afraid of being deported. She was arrested for child abduction when she visited Hawaii with Hwi in July 2014.
At Jo’s sentencing hearing Wednesday before Yolo Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg, Jo asked that Riordan be substituted for her public defender, Dean Johansson, who represented her at both trials.
Riordan’s associate, Matthew Dirkes, stood in for Riordan, who was traveling for work.
“We’re still going deeper into the issues of the case, but what attracted us to this is we’re aware that a 5-year-old girl who had only lived with her mother was almost literally taken out of her mother’s arms and given to a man that she didn’t know, and that her mother has been kept in jail away from her daughter, and we want to help provide the necessary advocacy given the situation,” Dirkes said. “There are potentially issues that might warrant a new trial motion.”
Rosenberg reset Jo’s sentencing hearing for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 28.
The case was continued over the strenuous objections of Yolo County Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Mount, who told the court that “the prosecution is proposing a sentence that would allow for Ms. Jo to be released today. ... It’s hard to imagine how the defense wants the defendant to stay in detention any longer.”
Outside court, Mount explained he was asking for the upper sentencing limit of three years, with credit for 16 months time served and the remaining time under mandatory supervision. If granted by Judge Rosenberg, Jo “would not have to spend one more minute in custody” he said.
Shim said that Jo’s supporters have made arrangements for her to live in the Sacramento area to be closer to her daughter once she’s released from jail. But a Sacramento Family Law judge has refused to let her see her daughter until her criminal case is resolved, said John Myers, a McGeorge School of Law professor on Jo’s legal team. He said he has gotten Jo permission to write letters to her daughter.
But Charlton, Hwi’s father, said the letters must clear her court-ordered counselor.
The wild card in Jo’s future is what ICE is going to do once Jo’s criminal case is resolved, said her immigration attorney, Juliet Turner-Lloveras. “If she gets released from jail, it’s possible ICE could just detain her and put her back in jail while her immigration case is pending and she won’t be able to see her daughter,” Turner-Lloveras said, “But ICE has the option to not detain her and allow her to address her family law case and get a chance to see her daughter. What we don’t know is if ICE will pick her up once she’s released from criminal custody or not.”
There are several scenarios that might keep Jo in the U.S. and give her a chance to see Hwi, Turner-Lloveras told The Bee last month. The first involves domestic violence in an earlier marriage to a U.S. citizen she met while studying film at the University of Southern California. Jo left him when he became jealous and physically abusive, said Mark Choi, another Sacramento attorney assisting Jo.
“He punched her, she had a bruised rib, he was arrested and convicted and got a one-year sentence,” Choi said.
Jo has a visa application pending for immigrant victims of crime who cooperate with law enforcement which, if granted, could allow her to stay in the U.S., get a job and in three years apply for a green card, Turner-Lloveras said.
Jo might also be allowed to stay as the parent of a U.S.-born minor child if she goes to Sacramento Family Law Court and the judge considers her petition for joint custody and/or visitation after her criminal case is resolved, Turner-Lloveras said.
Charlton, who came to court Wednesday prepared to read a statement at Jo’s sentencing, said he found Jo’s request for a new attorney confusing.
“It doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m not her,” he said.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.