Following an emotionally charged trial, a Yolo County jury on Tuesday convicted Korean immigrant Nan-Hui Jo of abducting her American-born baby daughter Hwi, now 6.
Jo held her face in her hands when the verdict was read in Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg’s courtroom Tuesday afternoon. Jo, 43, is scheduled to be sentenced April 1 and might face deportation to her native South Korea.
“This is the sort of case where there are no winners,” said Rosenberg, who has the discretion to reduce Jo’s conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor and sentence her to time served. Jo has been in the Yolo County jail for seven months. She has not seen her daughter since she was arrested last July in Hawaii, where she had taken Hwi to check out schools.
The case pitted the single mom against her former lover and Hwi’s father, Iraq war veteran Jesse Charlton. It was followed closely by Koreans from Sacramento to Seoul and advocates for domestic violence victims throughout California.
Though Charlton, 32, has never been arrested for domestic violence, he admitted on the witness stand that he once grabbed Jo by the throat and threw her up against the wall after she tossed the baby to him, the back of its head hitting him in the face. Charlton, who served two tours of duty as a machine gunner in Mosul, Iraq, testified he suffers from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder that cause memory loss, depression and erratic behavior. The Veterans Affairs Department found him to be 70 percent disabled.
Jo’s permission to be in the United States on a student visa had expired when she took baby Hwi from Sacramento to South Korea in 2009 without telling Charlton. In the subsequent years, she did not let him know where she was or how his daughter was doing.
When Jo landed in Hawaii last July, she was arrested for child abduction. Charlton was subsequently awarded custody by a Family Law Court in Sacramento. He says the court instructed him not to let Hwi see her mother while the criminal case was pending. He has been raising Hwi himself, and says she’s thriving in school.
It’s unclear when Jo will see Hwi again, or if and when she might be deported.
“Today a mother was convicted of doing what she felt was best for her daughter,” said Jo’s public defender, Dean Johansson. He argued that Jo believed Hwi was better off with her than with Charlton, who twice broke his hand pounding a wall and a steering wheel in anger and infuriated Jo by watching porn on her computer while taking care of the baby.
It was the second time Jo had been tried in Yolo County for abducting Hwi. Her first trial in December ended in a hung jury, with six jurors voting for acquittal, five for conviction and one undecided. Tuesday’s verdict came from a jury of six men and six women.
After the first trial, Yolo County Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Mount immediately announced his decision to retry Jo, sparking an outcry from women’s rights groups, college students and Korean immigrants in Northern California who believe Jo should have been released to be with her daughter.
“It’s difficult when parents have issues between them involving their children; they need to be decided in a court of law,” Mount said after the verdict. “Our Child Abduction Unit does its very best to help parents get into court. We only file charges in egregious cases where we have made contact and the defendants don’t do the right thing.”
Mount argued in his closing that Yolo County’s Child Abduction Unit had tried to reach out to Jo via email in Korea, offering to help her get into a women’s shelter while child custody was resolved in Family Law Court. Jo never responded, denying Charlton’s legal right to see his daughter, Mount said.
Despite Jo’s conviction, he said, “We could still help her.”
Mount’s decision to retry Jo galvanized a broad range of activists who came to court daily.
“We are extremely sad, disappointed and discouraged by the guilty verdict,” said Hyejin Shim of the Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse, one of 10 organizations, including My Sister’s House of Sacramento, that rallied behind Jo. “As advocates for survivors of domestic violence, we believe that this case should not have even been prosecuted.”
The organizations partnered with student groups and Korean American churches to bring attention to the case through Facebook and Twitter (#StandWithNanHui and #WeSurvived). KACEDA is asking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to use prosecutorial discretion and drop any pending deportation action.
The jury had been instructed to find Jo guilty if they believed she had willfully denied Charlton the right to see Hwi. On Monday, a juror told Judge Rosenberg she felt she could not morally render a verdict because she viewed the law as unjust. That juror was replaced by an alternate Tuesday morning.
Jo’s legal team includes Sacramento immigration attorneys Juliet Turner-Lloveras, Mark Choi and McGeorge Law School professor John Myers. “ICE has been very tight-lipped about what they are going to do,” Turner-Lloveras said. ICE would not comment on Jo’s case Tuesday.
There are several scenarios that might keep Jo in the U.S. and afford her a chance to see Hwi, Turner-Lloveras said. 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, Choi said.
“He punched her, she had a bruised rib, he was arrested and convicted, and got a one-year sentence,” Choi said.
Jo has a U visa application pending for immigrant victims of crime who cooperate with law enforcement that, 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 or visitation after her criminal case is resolved, Turner-Lloveras said. Myers said he filed that petition last week, and Jo’s custody hearing is scheduled for March 25.
Charlton, a skateboard and photography buff who works as a substitute high school teacher, said he supported the decision to retry Jo on child abduction charges. But he admitted it felt “so weird” to hear that she had been convicted.
“I want my daughter to know both her parents and get love from both her mom and her dad, but I’m still scared from losing her once already,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s rational. It would be ideal to keep in touch with her mom and the Korean side of her family through Skype, the Internet and stuff. Maybe we could all meet in Japan, I could see that working. I don’t want Hwi to see her mom in jail.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.