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He Got Life


Jaykumar Menon at the Center for Constitutional Rights.  

And so perhaps Menon could be forgiven if he perceived in David Wong an opportunity, just the kind he was looking for. “The case is nowhere,” he told himself. “So why don’t we just swing for the fences?” Over the years, Wong’s lawyers had made a barrage of filings on the murder conviction, to which the courts had been uniformly unreceptive. And so, propelled, it seemed, by his own enthusiasm, Menon had another thought, a grand one. “Why don’t we find out who the real killer is?” he wondered. Menon, for the moment, put aside the fact that he’d never had a law client before; Wong was to be his first. In fact, Menon soon did the calculation: The afternoon of the murder, he’d been a suburban high-school student running a slow leg in a mile relay. As he later explained, “I had no experience. Not even one year. None.”

In the years immediately following his murder conviction, David Wong had been an angry man, not that many people noticed. He still couldn’t speak much English and refused to try to speak to white people at all. “I knew not all the white people was bad,” says Wong, “but they do what they want to do.” Prison, though, proved a place of self-invention. First it was Islam. Wong became a convert and took a Muslim name—the name David had been pinned on him when someone couldn’t manage his real name, Kin Chin Wong. Then Wong decided to learn English, and next, the law. “That’s the only way I can fight back,” he said. Soon, Chinese-English dictionary in hand, he was coaching others in the prison law library and espousing a peculiar, prison-bred optimism. “Human being, even bad ones,” he said, “in some situations do good.”

Menon recalls his initial encounter with his first client. Wong had summoned Menon, his fifteenth and, by far, least-experienced attorney, to prison. There Wong, says Menon, was “ripping the legal choices, every one of them.” Menon searched for responses. He didn’t have many because, as he puts it, “Wong knew more about criminal law than I did.” Menon didn’t dare reveal that he was incubating a bold new strategy—to find the real killer. After all, he didn’t yet have anything to show for it.

As Wong’s motions had limped through the court system, rejection following rejection, Wong began to attract a following. People he’d never met declared themselves moved by his circumstances and volunteered to help. The David Wong Support Committee first convened in 1991. Of the dozen members, many were Asian, a unifying thread. Still, the intensity of commitment seemed perplexing. Was the abstract notion of injustice that stirring? It couldn’t have been Wong, an abstraction himself, nor fellow-feeling, since none of the original committee members had met one another (or Wong). Usually, only celebrities, radicals get defense committees. “Who was David Wong?” wondered one attendee, and answered his own question. “A nobody.”

Even some of the members were baffled by the committee’s persistence. “I’m usually a quitter,” says longtime member Patti Choy, 51, a career counselor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Yet the committee became a community, a group that seemed involved in more than proving Wong’s innocence. Two members married; seven members, inspired by the case, became lawyers. Declares Wayne Lum, a postal worker and the committee’s chief strategist, “This is my life.” Patti and her husband, Guy Kudo, who don’t have children, got to know Wong and incorporated him into their family. Perhaps Wong, with his slim biography, his inaccessibility, could be whatever people wanted: an innocent, a sage, a role model, or, to Patti, a long-lost friend. More than most, she came to respect and to love Wong. “He’s on my mind 24/7,” says Patti. “I feel like he’s been taken away from us. I just miss him.”

Menon’s partner in freeing Wong was a private investigator named Joe Barry, perhaps the only one in the city without law-enforcement experience. “Every P.I. in New York is an ex-something,” says Barry. “I’m an ex-nothing.”

For the most part, Barry seems content to make himself up as he goes along, largely along film-noir lines, which, inevitably, makes him a pariah in certain circles. A lot of lawyers don’t like him. “I can’t stand the guy,” says one. He’s been fired from almost every job he’s ever held. “Fourteen or fifteen,” Barry guesses, shrugging his slender shoulders.

Barry says he likes to figure things out for himself. “I have my own methods and my own ways,” he says. Barry’s guide in his life, as in his work, is his savior, Jesus Christ. As far as formal training, Barry’s is in Bible studies. He’d once hoped to earn a living as a teacher of New Testament Greek, a dead language that he, inexplicably, could read fluently. Unfortunately, Barry had his own view of certain religious matters, like the Holy Trinity. The seminary decided he should go his own way.

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