story by SEUNG Y. LEE
with additional reporting by VIJI SUNDARAM, New America Media
Woodland, Calif.—Dozens of supporters of Nan-hui Jo packed a Sacramento-area courtroom on April 28, donning purple shirts and pins to express solidarity with the single mother whose legal case has galvanized the Korean American community and advocacy groups focused on domestic violence prevention and immigrants’ rights.
They appeared for Jo’s sentencing at the hands of a state judge. In early March, a jury found the 43-year-old guilty of felony child abduction for fleeing to South Korea with her American-born daughter, allegedly to escape abusive behavior from the girl’s father.
At the Yolo County courthouse, Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg, after noting this was a “unique case,” reduced Jo’s conviction to a misdemeanor and sentenced her to 175 days in jail—time already served—and three years’ informal probation. The judge also ordered Jo’s release from the county jail where she has spent the past eight months.
Nevertheless, as of KoreAm’s press date, the chances of Jo’s reunion with her 6-year-old daughter—who is currently in the custody of the father, Iraq war veteran and substitute teacher Jesse Charlton—remain uncertain.
Following her sentencing, Jo was transferred into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has a deportation hold on the mother.
Immediately after the sentencing, Jo’s supporters gathered around the Yolo County courthouse steps, carrying signs and banners that read, “Stand with Nan-hui.”
“We will continue to fight for justice because [Jo] is still at risk of being detained and deported by ICE,” said Hyejin Shim, a spokeswoman for the Oakland-based national “Stand With Nan-hui” campaign. “This trial has been a mess of victim-blaming, anti-immigrant and sexist rhetoric that has undergirded the whole process from start to finish.”
Jo first came to the United States in 2002 on a student visa to study photography at the University of Southern California. Three years later, she married a U.S. citizen and moved to Connecticut. When her husband became abusive, Jo obtained a temporary restraining order and moved to Sacramento.
Jo met Charlton in 2007 while taking a photography class at Sacramento City College. They became romantically involved and had a daughter. They named her Vitz Da, which means “all light” in Korean, although the girl is known as Hwi.
Jo’s visa problems began in 2009. She received a letter from ICE, informing her that her student visa had expired and that her husband no longer supported her green card petition. ICE told Jo she should voluntarily leave the country. At the time, the aspiring filmmaker was working as a waitress at several Korean restaurants.
Around this time, Jo was also experiencing volatility in her relationship with Charlton. During Jo’s trial in February, the 32-year-old war veteran admitted that he once grabbed Jo by her throat and threw her up against the wall after he claimed she tossed their infant daughter to him. Charlton, who served two tours of duty as a machine gunner in Mosul, Iraq, testified that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that causes memory loss, depression and erratic behavior.
Charlton, according to Jo’s attorneys, also testified that Jo called the police on him, after he broke his hand hitting the wall near her head and punched the car’s steering wheel while she was in the car with him. No charges were filed against Charlton and the police told him to leave, take some space and come back later, according to court transcripts.
At trial, Jo said that she left for South Korea in 2009 with Hwi, then just an infant, because she no longer had legal status in the U.S., had no family members in the U.S. and has limited English proficiency. She also cited her fear of being around an abusive domestic partner.
Jo said she told Charlton of her decision to leave the country; he said she did not.
While Jo was in Korea, Charlton filed a complaint with law enforcement, claiming his girlfriend had abducted their child. In the nearly five years Jo was in Korea, Charlton said he sent Jo scores of emails, letting her know he had finished college, found work as a substitute teacher and that he missed his daughter. Jo responded to only one email, he said.
Last July, Jo flew to Hawaii on a tourist visa with Hwi to visit potential schools for her daughter. When Jo arrived at the airport, a U.S. child abduction unit, officials from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Charlton were waiting for her. She was arrested on child abduction charges.
As word of her case spread worldwide, Jo has seen an outpouring of support from such groups as the Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse, the Asian Law Caucus and Immigration Youth Coalition.
Supporters from Seoul to Sacramento have sent Jo dozens of letters and drummed up support through social media, arguing the case should not have been prosecuted at all since Jo is a domestic violence victim. In November, Jo filed an application for a “U Visa,” given to undocumented immigrants who can prove they were victims of a crime.
One of those supporters, Juhee Kwon, said that Jo has been “a wonderful mother” to Hwi and deserves to have her child back. “For her, living without her daughter is unthinkable,” she said.
Groups have also raised money for Jo’s legal costs, hiring well-known criminal appellate attorney Dennis Riordan to handle the mother’s case post-verdict.
Shortly after taking the case, Riordan filed a motion requesting either an acquittal of Jo’s conviction or a new trial, arguing the jurors were given improper instructions on the definition of “malice” and thus failed to consider Jo’s state of mind when she fled for Korea with Hwi. The motion was denied.
In a press conference after the April 28 sentencing, Riordan said he plans to file an appeal.
“Judge Rosenberg issued a thoughtful sentence that, under other circumstances, can be considered fair and just. But he’s dead wrong on this case,” the attorney said. “This conviction will be reversed.”
Featured image courtesy of Cynthia Fong of the #StandWithNanHui Organizing Committee.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jo illegally reentered the U.S. in 2014. In fact, Jo entered the country on a short-term tourist visa. The previous version also stated that Jo’s ex-husband served a one-year prison term for domestic violence. In fact, there is no indication that he served prison time. Finally, a previous sentence stating that “Charlton was told to stay away from Jo” had incorrect attribution and has been updated to reflect that Charlton was asked to leave by police and come back later, per the court transcript. KoreAm regrets the errors.