Monday, November 5, 2007

Uncommon Justice

Dr. Noel Chua from his cell in Camden County, Georgia and Renato Hughes from his cell in Lake County, California share an uncannily uncommon misfortune. Both are Filipino Americans who were charged with murder under a seldom-used legal doctrine that dates back to the common law rule in 12th century England, which ironically banned it in 1957.

Under this peculiar doctrine, a person can be charged with murder, instead of just manslaughter, when a victim dies accidentally or without specific intent in the course of the commission of an applicable felony. It makes any participant in such a felony criminally liable for any deaths that occur during that felony.

This law was abolished in England and most western countries which considered it unjust and unduly harsh to require no finding of any intent to kill or do bodily harm for someone to be found guilty of murder and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. The United States remains the only western country where this 12th century anachronism is still in active use.

Dr. Noel Chua was charged with violating Georgia’s Controlled Substance Act, and thereby causing the death of his patient, Jamie Carter III. According to the District Attorney, at least 10 drugs were found in Carter’s system, some of which were prescribed by Dr. Chua who, the D.A. charged, “ignored information in medical records from other physicians indicating Carter may have had a drug problem.”

Dr. Chua, an internal medicine specialist, said that Carter had a “long history of severe migraines and had to be hospitalized twice under my care for that condition. His past medical history reveals extensive work-up and numerous hospitalizations and ER visits for the same condition.”

Unfortunately, Carter “took a combination of pain medication”, some of which were prescribed by Dr. Chua and others by physicians (including a drug rehab doctor) that Carter went to before he went to Dr. Chua . The combination of drugs led to his death.

Carter died on December 15, 2005 but Dr. Chua was not arrested until September of 2006 and was still kept in jail for some time before formal charges were actually filed. The District Attorney then charged him with two murder counts and a racketeering count that allowed the DA the power to seize all of Dr. Chua’s assets. “It’s obviously a dirty, sleazy trick to grab all my money and properties so I will not be able to afford any defense on my part,” Dr. Chua charged.

With his properties in receivership (and with a receiver charging $12,000 a month to manage the estate), Dr. Chua was unable to post bail and remained in jail until his trial began on October 15. In the course of the 5-day trial, District Attorney Stephen Kelley introduced inflammatory testimony about a homosexual relationship between Dr, Chua and Carter, which was irrelevant to the charge of felony murder.

But it was effective, as the virtually all-white jury returned a verdict of guilty against Dr. Chua, a verdict which resulted in a sentence of "life imprisonment plus five years”.

In the same month that Carter died in December of 2005, Renato Hughes and his friend, Christian Foster, went to visit their old friend, Rashad Williams, who was living in Clear Lake with his grandmother. After the three pals got together, they decided to buy some marijuana, according to Rashad’s mother. They then went to the home of Shannon Edmonds, who, according to police records, is a known marijuana grower and drug dealer.

While Renato was waiting outside, Rashad and Christian went inside the house to talk to Edmonds. It is not clear what happened to cause Edmonds to get his shotgun and kill both Rashad and Christian. Some of his earlier statements indicated that a free-for-all altercation occurred.

But the official version he gave the police was that the boys invaded his home to steal his marijuana and that he shot them in self-defense with his 9mm semiautomatic Browning. He shot Rashad twice in the back and Christian five times in the back as well. When police arrived at the scene, they found Rashad lying in the middle of 11th Street, dead, and Christian dying in bushes about 20 yards away.

Two days after the killings, District Attorney Jon Hopkins accepted Edmonds’ version entirely and charged Renato Hughes with the double murder of his friends under the felony murder doctrine as their deaths, according to the D.A., occurred while in the course of committing a felony, an armed home invasion, with special circumstance punishable by death, if convicted.

Kenneth Block, a track and field coach at Balboa High School in San Francisco who knew all three boys personally, is furious that Edmonds was not the one charged with murder. “He took two boys’ lives and now he wants to take the third one. Where is justice in that? That doesn’t make any sense. They were fleeing the scene. They were murdered! This is a case of “double murder, double standard,” he said.

According to Renato’s attorney, Stephen Carter, “it's unclear whether Edmonds' place was invaded, whether a robbery occurred, or whether the three were merely hoping to buy marijuana -- and that no evidence indicates Renato Hughes was even in the house.”

"When you shoot someone who is fleeing, it's not self-defense," Carter said. "It's an execution."

While this case has attracted widespread attention in the African American community because Renato is half-Black, it has received no coverage in the Filipino American community even though Renato is half-Filipino.

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