Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday pardoned three Cambodian refugees facing deportation by federal immigration authorities, including one who murdered a fellow gang member and later became a local pastor.
Vanna In, Heng Lao and Phal Sok, all natives of Cambodia, were absolved of their past violent crimes by Brown’s pardons, which state that they are now rehabilitated. All three came to the country legally as refugees and their crimes made them targets for deportation. The pardons will help them avoid that fate.
In was convicted of murder for shooting a rival gang member in Fresno at age 17. He served six years in juvenile jail and was released in January 2001. He has since returned to Fresno.
He migrated to the United States as a refugee and has lived in the country legally for 40 years. Before Brown’s pardon, In was under deportation orders to be sent back to Cambodia, according to the Governor’s Office.
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“Since his release from custody, he has lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character and conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen,” Brown said in the pardon.
After his release, In started the organization “Jobs of Hope,” which helps gang members leave the gang life and get jobs, and became a local pastor. One person testifying on In’s behalf wrote that if he were to be deported, his departure “would be doing a disservice to the many people that Vanna can help in the future as well as improve the community that he so selflessly serves,” according to the pardon.
Lao was convicted in January 1998 in Los Angeles County for assault with a deadly weapon. He served two years in prison and was discharged in 2003 after completing his sentence.
Brown also noted that Lao has lived an honest life, has shown “good moral character” and has lived by the law. He owns “several businesses” and employes more than 30 people, Brown noted.
“Heng Lao has paid his debt to society,” Brown said.
Sok came to the U.S. at three months old and has lived in the United States legally for 37 years. He was convicted and sentenced in Los Angeles County in 2000 for robbery with the use of a firearm, according to the Governor’s Office. He served 15 years in prison and was discharged in August 2017.
Brown said he works at a nonprofit “dedicated to criminal justice reform,” adding that those who know Sok describe him as a “tireless advocate for immigrants, particularly refugee children and youth,” and a “true American.”
It’s not the first time Brown has issued pardons to help former convicts avoid deportation. Last December, he pardoned two Northern California men after being picked up in immigration sweeps. The residents of Modesto and Davis were also refugees from Cambodia. In April 2017, he issued pardons to three military veterans who had been deported to Mexico.
On Friday, Brown also lowered the sentences of 31 current inmates, including more than a dozen murderers, to make them eligible to make their case to the state parole board.
Those included Ardell Adams, sentenced to life without parole in Sacramento in 1994 for the 1993 murder of Kristoffer Brown outside a market. The governor said Adams had dedicated his life in prison to rehabilitation and tutors other inmates. He also has terminal colon cancer, and has “fundamentally altered his way of thinking and is worthy of mercy.”
Since 2011, Brown has issued 1,186 pardons and 82 commutations, according to the Governor’s Office. Typically they come during Easter and Christmas.