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.
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.