THE COUNSELOR=S CORNER
This is the case of Michael Chia who was convicted of in 1988 as an accomplice to the robbery and murder of three DEA agents. The agents had set up an $80,000 drug buy, or Asting operation@ to capture three suspected drug dealers in Monterey Park. The dealers decided to rob the DEA agents not knowing who they truly were. This lead to a gun fight during which two of the drug dealers and two of the DEA agents died. The third dealer named William Wang was convicted as the shooter of the DEA agents.
So what about Mr. Chia? He was not at the scene, however, he was convicted as an accomplice and co-conspirator as he dropped Mr. Wang at the scene of the meeting and allegedly was involved in the plot. Mr. Chia was convicted of murder due to the felony-murder rule and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. At the trial, Mr. Chia testified that he tried to talk Mr. Wang out of this plot. After the shooting, Mr. Wang was interrogated and in the first two interrogations he did not mention Mr. Chia as an accomplice. In the critical third interrogation, Mr. Chang told those at Pasadena P.D. who were questioning him that Mr. Chia was in no way involved in this drug deal gone wrong, and, in fact, Mr. Chia had him urged not to go through with the planned robbery. The plan of the drug dealers was to not provide the DEA agents posing as buyers with drugs but to take the $80,000.00 and then kill them.
At Mr. Chia=s trial, Mr. Wang refused to testify and the court would not permit the tape recorded statement of Mr. Wang indicating that Mr. Chia tried to talk to him out of the robbery to be played for the jury. The court concluded that this was hearsay and would not be admissible.
In its decision in early March of this year, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found in a razor thin 2 to 1 decision that Mr. Chia=s due process rights were violated in that this taped statement of Mr. Wang was both reliable and material. The court concluded that the trial court=s decision prevented Mr. Chia from being able to present his defense in this case and that the tape was something the jury should have heard before rendering its verdict. For what it is worth, since all the other potential witnesses died in the sting gone bad, this tape was the only significant piece of evidence that Mr. Chia had to rely upon to substantiate his position. The Circuit Court indicated that the taped statement from Mr. Wang Aconfirms that Chia may be telling the truth.@ The dissenting judge in this 2 to 1 decision believed that Mr. Wang=s statements were not reliable and therefore should not have been admitted. Shouldn=t that be for the jury to decide? Fortunately, the court ruled that it should.
The U.S. Circuit Court is not the first court to reach this decision regarding this case. In 2002, the Ninth Circuit reached the same conclusion. The State of California appealed to the United States Supreme Court which sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit for further findings. Well, the Ninth Circuit reiterated its 2002 decision and it appears as if Mr. Chia will be going to trial once again.
This is clearly the right result. Mr. Chia is obviously not one of society=s finest, however, at the risk of stating the obvious, he should not be convicted for what he did not do. If he in fact tried to talk to Mr. Wang out of the planned robbery, that of course is something for the jury to hear when one is accused of robbery and murder. If he was an accomplice and co-conspirator and the prosecution can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he should be convicted. If that is not the case, he should be acquitted and a jury can only do its job if it hears all relevant, reliable, material evidence and the tape of Mr. Wang=s statements clearly falls in that category. Let Mr. Chia be re-tried and let a jury, hearing all of the evidence decide what they wish.
Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Unger & Grover, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth. Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues. He can be reached at (818) 244-8694 or at www.charlieunger.com.