Throwing Away the Key

Why Gov. Davis' just-say-no parole policy is wrong, Exhibit No. 1: Eddy Zheng has earned a college degree in prison, sings in a church choir, works with at-risk youth, has the support of clergymen, college professors, his prison counselor, and the

"I felt like my family didn't love me," Zheng says. "I know they did now, but I thought they didn't care. But I didn't want to ask for money because I know we don't have any. I know they were struggling."

His crime, he says now, was due to "some cultural and a lot of personal factors. In China, things were very structured. My family was well-established and I was a spoiled kid. I'd go to school and lunch would be waiting for me when I got home. I'd go back to school, and then dinner would be waiting for me. There was clothes waiting for me to wear, I don't have to worry about anything. I get whatever I want."

The police officer slapped handcuffs on Zheng about midnight, but it was nearly 8 a.m. before another officer led the dazed 16-year-old to a room for questioning. Zheng confessed to the crime after the first question.

While in prison, Zheng has participated in several 
self-help and educational programs.
Paolo Vescia
While in prison, Zheng has participated in several self-help and educational programs.
Zheng's attorney, Keith Wattley.
Paolo Vescia
Zheng's attorney, Keith Wattley.

"How we robbed them?" Zheng said. "We robbed them."

Zheng had called his father, who rushed to the police station to help his son. But from there, things get a little blurry. Zheng's father says he thought he understood what the judge was saying at court hearings because he had an interpreter, but to this day the Zhengs are not clear about all the felony counts that were lodged against their son, and they remain angry because they were led to believe that it would be best for Zheng to readily admit to everything he was charged with.

"We had no English and no money to pay a lawyer," Mrs. Zheng says in Cantonese. "Everyone told us that Eddy should admit to it, and then there would be a lighter sentence. But actually, it was a heavier sentence. It was the opposite of what we were told."

Kit Cho, Zheng's high school probation counselor, agrees that Zheng's sentence was severe. "I'm not surprised that he went to jail or was arrested. These are people we call at-risk, after all," Cho says. "But I am very surprised that he is still in prison for that crime. He was just a kid. Some people really should be in prison, but I feel very sorry about this. I really think he deserved a chance."

Zheng pleaded guilty to 16 felony counts and was found unfit to be sentenced as a juvenile, with a probation officer noting that "although this is his first felony offense, the crime involved violence, bodily harm, and the potential for grievous injury to any or all of the four victims."

Zheng eventually accepted an adult sentence of seven years to life, though initially he had very little understanding of his actions. After only a few months in the California Youth Authority, Zheng wrote a note in Chinese to plan another robbery once he got out. It was found in the apartment of another Oakland criminal. When a probation officer interviewed him seven months after the crime, Zheng still seemed to lack a moral analysis of the crime, saying the kidnap-robbery was wrong because it was against the law.

"Why did you commit the crime?" the probation officer asked Zheng.

"I would do anything a friend asks," Zheng said. "That is the kind of guy I am."

Several years later, and after he had been moved to an adult prison, a 1992 psychological report noted that Zheng still "seemed unwilling to acknowledge any faults, aside from picking the wrong companion." The prison psychologist said he was "torn between two competing pictures" of Zheng -- as a "confused immigrant" and a "criminally oriented individual."

But in his first parole hearing in 1992, Zheng, who was 23 at the time, insisted he had changed and realized the extent of his actions. "I understand what kind of consequence and what kind of lasting effects [this] had on the family, the kids especially," he said during the hearing. "I had six years to think about things. When I first doing it or start, you know, I didn't know. I didn't know what kind of crime I was doing."

The commissioners denied his parole for two years.

Over time, as Zheng participated in more self-help and educational programs, his psychological reports and his showings at parole hearings began to improve.

"In 1993 is when I started thinking critically because that's when I started getting more education," Zheng says. "I was able to start reading things and understanding things that I wouldn't understand before. When I started to think critically, I noticed a change. You know why you're in prison, and I'm in prison because of this crime. It helped with my confidence and my thinking."

By Zheng's 1994 parole hearing, he was receiving laudatory marks for his work as a clerk. He got straight A's in his vocational classes and had earned his high school GED. He joined several self-help and leadership groups, including Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, Alternatives to Violence, the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Group, and a program to deter at-risk teens from prison. The psych report prepared for that hearing said Zheng would make a "good candidate for parole."

But the board denied his parole for one year because the crime was "especially atrocious, cruel, and callous" and because Zheng had not participated in enough self-help programs.

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