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

Zheng's next hearing did not occur until January 1996, but it also appeared promising. He wore a pin on his collar that he received after making 10 speeches in the Toastmasters public speaking program, and the parole board commissioners joked with Zheng about his notable oratory skills. He had begun participating in self-esteem classes and programs such as the Addictive Behavior Therapy Group and a literacy project. He also had taken on leadership positions in the program for at-risk youth and the Alternatives to Violence program. "This is a pretty outstanding record that you've achieved here while in custody," one commissioner told him, and then jokingly asked, "You don't have your master's or your Ph.D. yet?"

The psychological evaluation for that hearing found that Zheng "has grown considerably, both emotionally and as a productive personality with potential to make a significant contribution to society." His violence potential was considered "below average."

During closing statements, Zheng told the commissioners: "I feel that I'm ready to become a productive member [of society]. And I don't just talk about it, because one thing that I learned that stays in my heart is lip service without behavior has no value whatsoever."

Harriet Salarno of Crime Victims United.
Paolo Vescia
Harriet Salarno of Crime Victims United.

One of the three commissioners voted for his parole.

The next year, under a different panel, one of three commissioners again voted for Zheng's parole.

By the time of Zheng's 1998 hearing, he had started taking classes toward an AA degree, was singing in the Catholic choir, and had written a curriculum for at-risk youth in Antioch. All three commissioners voted to release Zheng.

But Gov. Davis returned the 1998 decision to the board, citing concern over the "facts surrounding these serious crimes, and the most recent negative psychiatric evaluation." That evaluation said, among other things, that the "majority of inmate Zheng's evaluations point to his evolving maturity," though Zheng had an "inability to recognize his own limitations" and showed "emotional immaturity with a limited ability for introspection."

Zheng received the news of the governor's decision by fax, which a guard delivered to his cell. "The warden was afraid I would go crazy after I heard the news, but I had waited six months already, I already signed the parole papers, I was just waiting for the phone call, and that phone call never came," Zheng says. "It was difficult to handle because of the anticipation. At the same time, I was prepared, mentally. My thinking at the time was that until I get two feet out of prison, I'm still in prison."

Zheng says that though prison has helped him, he's ready for parole. "I think prison really changed my life," Zheng says. "It made me who I am today. Would I understand the same things from the outside? Maybe, but I believe things happen for a reason.

"I feel that I have committed a crime and I deserve punishment for that crime. However, I'm no longer a threat to society, and I should be out."

The Davis administration disagrees. "This was a brutal, brutal crime," says Byron Tucker, a spokesman for Gray Davis. "Given the facts surrounding this serious crime, Gov. Davis has expressed an extreme concern that Mr. Zheng would pose an unreasonable risk if he re-entered public society. Clearly, this is an individual who should not be walking the streets unsupervised at this time."

If not for a brother in state prison, Lili Zheng's life would seem picture-perfect: a career as a partner in a Big Five accounting firm, a two-story house in San Jose, rainbow pinwheels spinning lackadaisically in her front yard flower bed, a teal Mercedes-Benz parked in the three-car garage.

After years of struggle, the Zhengs, with Lili at the helm, have finally made it financially in America. Mr. and Mrs. Zheng, now in their late 60s, never mastered English, but in their twilight years they are supported handsomely by two of their children, Peter and Lili.

Beyond the rosy suburban veneer, Eddy's incarceration has cast a shadow on the Zheng family. At first, to avoid embarrassment, they tried to keep it a secret. At family gatherings, Mrs. Zheng told relatives that Eddy was too busy studying to attend the functions. Eddy's grandfather passed away in 1990, and was never told of Eddy's whereabouts.

As the years passed, the Zhengs became frustrated; today they are more willing to talk about their youngest son who went astray.

"Everybody was very sad," his father says in Cantonese. "We felt like we had spent all this time and effort to get the best education for the kids and Eddy came to this country to become a criminal. It was so difficult to come from such a good environment [in China], and then he gets in the wrong place here. We expected the U.S. to have more freedom, to let a juvenile recover from what they did, and make a contribution to society."

"After a few parole hearings, I started to feel the system is not working," adds Lili. "We thought he deserved it [prison], there is no excuse. We have no problem with seven years, and even when he got tried as an adult, we all can accept it. But after 16 years, he's done everything he possibly can. It takes away our hopes."

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