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He Got Life

Most lawyers give a case their best shot, then move on. In the Wong case, fourteen lawyers had come and gone. But what if you believed the client innocent? It’s a lot of weight, thought Menon. There was one last perfunctory appeal to make. Hellerstein canceled classes and worked on a brief. Appeals courts usually respect a lower judge’s evaluation of the facts.

In the Wong case, the appeals court swiftly rebuked Lawliss. Even a prisoner has a right to be innocent, the court seemed to say, and it overturned the guilty verdict. After almost two decades, Wong was granted a new trial. Unfortunately, the appeals court directed Lawliss, who seemed to have made up his mind about the case, to conduct the trial.

Lawliss appeared happy to oblige. On November 1, 2004, Lawliss instructed that jury selection begin in an impossibly short four weeks. No one could prepare for a trial that quickly.

Hellerstein returned to the appeals court and urged it to disqualify the judge, who seemed to know in advance what to think of David Wong. Perhaps Lawliss’s heart wasn’t really in it. He’d stuck with it long enough. Rebuked once by the higher court, Lawliss flinched and recused himself.

The next judge on the case, this one from outside the county, reasonably told the parties that he didn’t see the sense of a new trial. On December 10, the district attorney filed a motion to dismiss the charges “in the interests of justice,” almost as in Menon’s dream.

Late in December, David Wong was freed from the New York State prison system that had been his home for twenty years. He was promptly shipped to a Homeland Security detention facility down the road from a Comfort Inn outside Buffalo—he’s an illegal immigrant; there’s been a standing deportation order in his case since 1994.

One afternoon last month, he sits in a narrow, bright-white visitor’s room of cinder blocks, his hands folded on a table. He’s been given a new outfit, this one fire-engine red and a little too big. Wong, now 42, could have left prison at the age of 28. He’s become an adult in prison, and culturally American. He’s eager to talk, though in a language all his own. There’s a base of prison-learned English—“I got nobody in China no more”—mixed with bureaucratic terms—“pertaining,” “paperwork”—and an extensive legal vocabulary (in Latin). “The habeas,” he says, or, combining prison shorthand and legal Latin, simply, “the hae.” All of it is dosed with a thick Chinese accent.

Wong stays almost perfectly still, except that his head ticks back and forth a fraction, a calibrated motion that seems to suggest his next thought. “My freedom clock is ticking,” he says. He seems proud of his phrase. His thumbs twirl. He tries to envision life outside prison, something he has been doing a lot of lately. There are basic questions he still can’t answer. Where will he go? What will he do? He can’t seem to picture life outside prison in any detailed way. Will he find a job as a porter, a dishwasher, picking up where he left off? At times, he even imagines himself a translator. Wong says he will be happy to be free anywhere, though, secretly, he hopes that he’d be able to spend time with Patti and Guy in Brooklyn. It’s what Patti imagines, too. “If he gets out, he’s taken care of,” she says.

In all likelihood, as Wong knows, his future will be played out elsewhere. Menon had thought to oppose the deportation order and recruited an immigration attorney, initially a member of the support committee. Little can be done. If China agrees, Wong is headed back to his native village, where he no longer knows anyone. His father is dead. His mother lives far away, in Hong Kong. Patti and Guy, Menon, and the others will be even farther away. Innocence, the longed-for state, has reshaped everything, and yet at this, his valedictory moment, his happiness seems incomplete. From the detention center, his letters begin to change. They are handwritten, less conversational, and for the first time, extensively emotional.

“I am longing and dreaming to have the opportunities to be in you guys’ company,” he writes to Patti and Guy. It’s a simple pleasure he’s rarely had. He’s been with Patti a few hours perhaps, and that’s cumulatively over a decade and, as he points out, with “those guards around controlling where to sit what time we can be together.” Now what he wants most is “to be hanging with my great wonderful friends, having funs and laughters and alls,” as he tells Patti. Funs and laughters and all, this is what he’d imagined as the fruits of innocence.