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

Eddy Zheng took a deep breath, concentrating as if he were in a Buddhist meditation session. Searching for a quiet calm, he tried to radiate peace and confidence as he braced himself on the bench in a San Quentin holding cell in 1998, waiting for his fifth parole hearing to begin.

Though still locked behind steel bars, Zheng thought of freedom in halting fits, afraid to hope too much and yet unable to bury his faith.

The guard called his name and escorted him into the drab and cheerless parole boardroom, all wood paneling and '70s furniture. Wearing the standard prison uniform of jeans and a denim shirt, Zheng sat down at a long table, facing three commissioners. Silently, he waited for the hearing to begin.

Mary and Larry Zheng say their son is rehabilitated and 
they would do anything for his freedom.
Paolo Vescia
Mary and Larry Zheng say their son is rehabilitated and they would do anything for his freedom.
Critics of California's parole policy say politics alone 
keeps Eddy Zheng in San Quentin State Prison.
Paolo Vescia
Critics of California's parole policy say politics alone keeps Eddy Zheng in San Quentin State Prison.
Zheng has spent 16 years in prison.
Paolo Vescia
Zheng has spent 16 years in prison.
Zheng has spent 16 years in prison.
Paolo Vescia
Zheng has spent 16 years in prison.
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.
Harriet Salarno of Crime Victims United.
Paolo Vescia
Harriet Salarno of Crime Victims United.

For "lifers" like Zheng serving indeterminate prison sentences, such parole hearings become a routine, another marker of time -- and life -- that has passed. Zheng earned his place in a California state prison in 1986, when, at the age of 16, he and two friends forced their way into a San Francisco home with guns, tied up the family, and for the next six hours ransacked the family's house and the convenience stores they owned. Zheng pleaded guilty to 16 felony counts and was tried as an adult for a kidnap-robbery. He received a sentence of seven years to life.

Zheng has spent more than half his life in prison since the crime. When he first entered the correctional system, he was a gangly teen who looked younger than his age. Now he is trim, tall, and bespectacled; his choppy buzz cut is beginning to gray.

As Zheng sat before the commissioners, he felt confident about his prospects. With every question the panel asked him about the crime, his incarceration, and his parole plans, he tried to show that he was a model inmate who had remade himself in prison. A recent immigrant when he committed the crime, he had since mastered English and earned an associate of arts degree from the San Quentin college program. He took part in several self-help, educational, and religious programs. He had letters of support from dozens of people, from college professors to clergy. He had no major disciplinary infractions, and his prison counselor and psychological reports said he was qualified for release.

After Zheng delivered a closing statement, the commissioners left the room to vote on whether to grant Zheng a release date or not. Thirty minutes later, they filed back into the room, and Zheng was led in to face them. As Zheng readied himself for another denial, a commissioner told him that they had voted unanimously to grant his parole.

Zheng stared at them with stoic disbelief. Only about 1 percent of lifers in recent years have managed to get a release date from a California prison. Zheng had just beaten the odds.

But one of the commissioners' parting comments would foreshadow upcoming events: "Under no circumstances are you to be released from prison until this decision has been reviewed in Sacramento and also by the governor. So there's still two obstacles to overcome before you're going to be released. And wait until everything is over and done with before you pack your suitcases, OK?"

As it turned out, Zheng never got a chance to pack up his belongings for release. His case sat on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk until Wilson left office. When Gray Davis assumed the position in 1999, Zheng's case became the second to be reviewed by the new governor, who had taken a "tough on crime" stance.

Under a voter-approved 1988 law, Davis chose not to approve Zheng's parole date, and sent it back to the Board of Prison Terms for a full-member hearing. At that hearing, the governor-appointed board denied Zheng's parole. In each of his subsequent parole hearings, Zheng has continued to be rejected for release because of the seriousness of his crime.

Zheng's case falls into what experts describe as an increasingly politicized arena. "The politicization of crime and punishment and a conservatism toward parole is a general phenomenon," says Professor Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley criminologist. "California has caught an extreme case of the disease."

Critics say that in California, parole for lifers is no longer granted based on merit, and that Gov. Davis automatically denies parole for lifers because he wants to appear tough on crime. The governor is said to have adopted an unwritten policy of refusing parole for lifers, denying 81 of the 83 approvals made by the Board of Prison Terms during his tenure.

Though Davis says he does not have a predisposed philosophy toward parole, appeals courts have recently stated that the governor -- whose campaign coffers are filled with prison guard donations -- has no basis for refusing release of two qualified inmates. And a 1999 report from the state's Legislative Analyst's Office also notes that "the unwritten administration policy of no longer releasing from prison any life-term inmate who is eligible for parole has significant legal, policy, and fiscal ramifications for the state criminal justice system."

Zheng and his supporters say that politics is what keeps the 33-year-old inmate -- whom they consider a shining example of a rehabilitated criminal -- from re-entering society.

"Eddy has a compelling case, but a lot of people do," says Keith Wattley, Zheng's attorney. "He's an example of what is possible, and an example of how the system fails."

It was past 6 p.m. on Jan. 6, 1986, when Eddy Zheng, David Weng, and Dennis Chan parked a borrowed gray Datsun in front of the house they planned to rob.

About a week before, Weng had proposed that the three of them hit up a family who owned two convenience stores in Chinatown that sold expensive herbal remedies. Zheng's family was too poor to give him an allowance, and he was immediately attracted to the idea of easy money.

Hiding out in the car at dusk, they were minutes from going through with the crime. As they waited for the family to come home, someone handed Zheng a large, black .22-caliber automatic with nine bullets.

At about 6:30 p.m., a taxi pulled up behind the Datsun, and all four family members got out: a couple and their two children, ages 8 and 5. As they walked up the stairs to the front door, three young men with guns rushed up behind them. Weng fixed his gun on the man, and Zheng pointed his gun at the woman. "This is a robbery! We want your money!" they shouted as they forced their way into the house behind the frightened family.

Zheng pushed the man into a chair and tied him up with a necktie and telephone wire. Another teen took the woman to a bedroom, where she was tied up with duct tape; the children were locked in a bathroom.

The teens ransacked the house for hours, dumping gold chains, diamond rings, and other valuables into a briefcase by the door. The robbers assumed the family had a safe in the home full of money, and they kept demanding to know where it was.

Zheng approached the woman to ask her "where the money is," and then, suddenly, ripped off her clothes. She fell backward onto the bed, and one of the teens, using a camera with no film in it, pretended to take pictures of her naked. Zheng later told police that he stripped the woman to intimidate her into telling him where the safe was, to "just scare, scare her, you know." During a court hearing, the woman would tearfully testify about the violation, and add that Weng threatened her with rape.

Zheng returned to the man in the living room and asked for the store keys. At some point, Zheng hit the man with his gun. The ransacking continued until 11 p.m., when Chan brought the woman, now dressed, downstairs. They decided that Zheng and Chan would drive the woman to the family's stores for more money while Weng stayed at the house with the rest of the victims. Back in Chinatown, Zheng and Chan collected more jewelry, merchandise, and cash from the stores. The total take amounted to $34,000.

As Zheng drove the woman home, a police officer stopped the car because Zheng was driving without lights on. The officer noticed the visibly shaken woman in the back seat; she told the officer in Cantonese that there was "danger in my home." Zheng and Chan were quickly arrested; Weng initially escaped.

Zheng says greed drove him to commit the "senseless" crime. "I was amazed by all the materialistic stuff that other kids had that I don't have," Zheng said in his most recent parole hearing. "I don't ever get allowance from my family because they don't have money, and all my clothes were hand-me-downs from Goodwill. I didn't appreciate what my family had to go through so that I could have clothes and a place to live."

Financially, the '80s were a tough time for the Zheng family, who immigrated to the U.S. from mainland China in 1982. The family struggled to make it, cramming into a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland where shootings occurred periodically at their front door.

To pay the $300-a-month rent, Zheng's father took a job at a local Burger King, and his mother moved in with another family to serve as a live-in baby sitter to earn $400 a month. She came home one night a week.

Zheng's older brother and sister also worked several jobs and went to school. No one had time for Zheng, the youngest, who was having a hard time at school because of language difficulties.

Bored with lessons he couldn't understand, Zheng began cutting school. With only rudimentary English skills, he started hanging out with kids he met at a playground in Oakland's Chinatown -- delinquents by most measures.

One of the kids was Dennis Chan, who would later participate in the kidnap-robbery. Chan dared Zheng to steal a jacket from Macy's, and Zheng, unaware of anti-theft devices, tried to wear the coat out of the store. He was arrested and put on probation, which he violated every time he cut school.

Zheng's family tried different tactics to keep him out of trouble. His dad took him to school every day before work, and watched him walk into the classroom before he drove off. Zheng would stay for the first class, then walk the few short blocks home to watch TV. Before long, he started going out again with his friends. Days would go by without his family knowing where he was.

"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.

"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.

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."

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."

There is a desperation and helplessness in their voices, an expressed willingness to do anything, pay any sum, or give up everything for Eddy's freedom. They have hired the most expensive lawyers, organized events, and circulated petitions for Eddy's release. They have worked with a film crew to feature Eddy's story in a documentary called Lifers.

Though the prison is more than an hour's drive away, the Zhengs visit Eddy often. The entire family drove up for Eddy's college graduation in April 2000, beaming proudly and taking pictures of the happy moment. Eddy calls home frequently, too, and sends letters, poems, and essays.

One memorable letter arrived on Mr. Zheng's birthday a couple of years ago. In the birthday card he sent, Eddy had tucked a poem he had written for his father that expressed his regret toward the victims and his own family. Mr. Zheng wept openly and filed it away for safekeeping in a desk drawer.

"I've really learned a lot about Eddy, and it makes me feel happy now that he understands what he did was wrong," Mr. Zheng says. "He has changed a lot. He is more confident and he knows what he wants to do with his life. One good thing that has come out of all of this is that he has learned regret for everything that he has done."

But at times, the shadow of incarceration challenges even the Zhengs' faith. As Mr. and Mrs. Zheng left the visiting room in San Quentin two months ago, Mrs. Zheng pulled Eddy aside by the arm and asked him pointedly, "Are you ever going to get out?"

Eddy says he was surprised. "Yes, of course I'm going to get out," he told his mother. "Maybe not today, or next year, but I will get out one day. Why do you ask?"

Mrs. Zheng looked away. "Because your father says you're never coming home."

Since his initial parole grant in 1998, Zheng's collection of pink parole-denial slips has continued to grow, even as his list of institutional accomplishments has expanded.

In a May 2000 hearing, Zheng felt sure he would reclaim his freedom. But among the dozens of support letters was a memo from his arresting officer asking that the parole board deny Zheng's release because of the "violent nature" of the crime. The board did.

In a June 2001 recision hearing to determine whether his original 1998 release date should be upheld, Zheng's parole was again denied.

The Board of Prison Terms' Denise Schmidt says parole denials like Zheng's show that the board's system of checks and balances is working. "The decision to deny parole during a recision hearing can occur because they [the commissioners] might find some sort of error has been made, or some fact of circumstance has been overlooked," Schmidt says. "Because everyone in the process is concerned about public safety."

"We have to watch the lifers because they committed a heinous crime and their [the Board of Prison Terms and the governor] responsibility is to protect you and me," says Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California.

But others say the system is arbitrary and flawed. "It is clear to us that this [parole] system is not set up to ensure fairness and justice and due process," says Gwynnae Byrd, a staffer to Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who recently introduced a bill to establish independent judicial reviews of parole. "And for the governor to sanction such a process is not appropriate. We feel that parole considerations are not subjected to impartial, objective standards. There needs to be subjective standards, as well, but it should be subjective based on the circumstances of the crime, not the politics around the crime."

For Zheng, his most recent parole hearing in November 2001 fell into a familiar pattern. As he had so many times in the past, he waited in a San Quentin holding cell beforehand, cultivating a controlled calm to ward off nervousness. Soon, a guard escorted him to the boardroom with the same wood paneling and the same long table. He brought a manila folder of papers with him this time, filled with support letters. From the beginning, however, Zheng says he could tell what the outcome would be.

Unlike some previous hearings, there was little joking, and the commissioners sounded accusatory when they asked Zheng whether he threatened to rape the female victim, or participated in a gang. Zheng denied both, and his attorney pointed out that there was no evidence of either.

After all the formalities, the commissioners shuffled out of the room and discussed the case for about 15 minutes. Returning to the boardroom, they told Zheng that they had chosen to deny his parole for another year. In a prepared speech, a commissioner said that Zheng still posed a threat to society, that the crime was particularly cruel, that he ran with a gang and refused to admit it, and that he had not participated in sufficient self-help programs.

Zheng listened to the decision wordlessly. He looked down and blinked slowly, his hands steady and folded.

When the commissioner finished his speech, Zheng broke his pained silence. "Thank you for your comments," he said, "but when does the forgiveness -- is that ever going to come in?"

"I don't know that the citizens will ever forgive you," the commissioner interrupted. "My job is not to forgive you, my job is to see if I feel you are any longer a threat to the public, and I feel there are still parts of you that you need to work on."

"I will continue to work on that," replied Zheng, "however I'm left with a void, that in previous hearings, back in 1996 and 1997, 1998, commissioners voted for my parole because they see who I am today. They saw that I am ready for society. And then the next two hearings, I'm being painted as this criminal that has never changed, and I'll never get out ..."

"You are a criminal," the commissioner interjected.

"I am no longer a criminal. I was a criminal," Zheng said indignantly.

"First and foremost, you are a criminal, that's why you are here. You will always be a criminal; there's nothing that says a criminal can't change."

Zheng collected his thoughts in silence. "Do you believe in your heart that I haven't made any changes?" he asked.

"I do believe you've made changes ... but not enough to be a regular citizen," the commissioner said.

"I appreciate what you guys are doing, I believe in the law," Zheng said finally. "What I'm trying to say is that I was not given an opportunity for you to open your hearts, for you to see who I am."

"Society will forgive you one day," the commissioner said, hurriedly motioning the hearing to an end. "We can't tell you when, but they will forgive you one day."

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