The Three Lives of David Wong

Institute History


David Wong began his life in a small village in Mainland China. At 14, he drops out of school. At the age of 18, David's worried mother decides to illegally ship him to the United States to be with his father in the hope his father would straighten him out. In New York, David finds his dad who secures him a bed in a crowded rooming house but soon has to fend for himself. David eventually gets a job at a Chinese restaurant and makes a few friends, though not the right kind. In 1983 at the suggestion of one of those friends David gets involved in a robbery. David didn't make it to the scene of the crime? he spoke no English and so had trouble deciphering traffic signs. Still, the police alerted in advance, found David nearby with a gun in his pocket. Convicted of armed robbery, he is sentenced to eight years and sent off to Dannemora, a maximum-security prison built into the side of a mountain in upstate New York.

David's first few years in prison were uneventful until a snowy day in March 1986 when a fellow inmate, Tyrone Julius, is fatally stabbed in the back of the neck with a sharpened soup ladle. A guard 200 feet away claims David Wong is the culprit. Initially, the guard testified that the murderer was white, but later changed his testimony to say he was "Oriental." David was only one of two Asians at Dannemora. When another prison guard coerces an inmate to testify against David in exchange for early release, David's fate was sealed. With no real defense, no means, and an ongoing language barrier, in 1987 David is sentenced to 25 years to life. David begins to work towards his freedom, befriending his inmates, converting to Islam and then to Buddhism; teaching himself English, and studying the law. Despite the brutal attacks by the prison guards that preferred Wong keep quiet, he continued to write letters to anyone who might take on his case. Eventually, one of those letters reached Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese-American activist who famously cradled Malcolm Xin her arms when he was assassinated. She eventually forms the David Wong Support Committee (DWSC), a group of Asian-American activists who over the next 15 years would work tirelessly on his behalf.

The group fast became his closest allies. Patti Choi, one of David's closest friends on the committee, was surprised at her own persistence with the case. "I'm usually a quitter, but this is my life," she states as she described how she and her husband quickly grew to consider David as part of their family.

With the financial backing of the DWSC, 14 lawyers worked on David's case, to no avail, until one rookie lawyer with no prior trial experience, Jaykumar Menon, was assigned the case. With the help of Joe Barry, an eccentric private investigator from Brooklyn, Jaykumar did something no other lawyer in David's case attempted: to investigate who really killed Tyrone Julius. They interviewed prisoners and guards, whose testimonies were suppressed from the original court case. Barry uses unconventional tactics to get people to "spill the beans." After much persistence justice finally finds David, when Jaykumar and his team are able to find the real killer and on December 10, 2004, David finally was exonerated.

What should have been a celebration quickly turned into another stroke of bad luck for David. After his release, David is immediately sent to a Homeland Security detention center and given an order of deportation back to China but is immediately rejected and deemed an embarrassment that country. A citizen of no place, the prospect of indefinite detention seemed an even bleaker prospect than his years in prison. Eventually, David is accepted into Hong Kong where he's been ever since.

Today, now a 50-year old man, David works as a construction worker in Hong Kong. His life is relatively peaceful, yet he longs to reunite with the people that helped him. Jaykumar is no longer practicing law and the DWSC still meets every now and again. The camaraderie formed as part of a movement, one that was unheard of in the Asian Community at the time and even now, is something that will never fade. Many of the committee members have never met David in person, but they hope to bring him to the US so he can experience life as a free man, for once, in the land of the free.


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