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The teens' ineptitude proved to be their undoing. When a police officer pulled over Zheng and Chan for driving without headlights, one glance at the shaken woman in the backseat told him something was wrong. Zheng confessed immediately upon his arrest.
After the break-in, David recalls, "life changed pretty much forever." His parents installed an alarm system, window bars, a cage around the balcony, and a bar across the back door that Jenny says looks like it was designed to withstand a battering ram. Although the family didn't talk much about the crime, it clearly took a toll on them. "From that point on, I was very, very paranoid," David recalls. "It's hard to regain that innocence that was lost. You normally don't lose that until later in life, but I lost it at nine." Jenny remembers that her brother was afraid to sleep or be left alone in a room; his mom made him take self-defense lessons, but that didn't make him feel more protected. "I was ten," he recalls. "What good is it going to do?"
The siblings say their mom never spoke about what exactly happened to her, but it left her deeply shaken, and at one point she considered buying a gun. Jenny says her mother would call the cops when she heard noises upstairs, and once hired a private detective to follow her daughter around. "She always saw me as being on the edge of something horrible and terrible about to happen, like I'm about to be the victim of some crime," she recalls. "To be an immigrant I think it's really difficult to find security, but if that crime hadn't happened I think there would be more peace of mind with her."
Life also had changed for Eddy Zheng. If Oakland high schools had been confusing, the American legal system was much worse. His family couldn't afford a lawyer, so he was appointed a public defender. She didn't have much to work with; after all, her client was caught red-handed and had admitted everything.
But there was one thing Zheng's defense could do: Ask the judge to issue a judicial recommendation against deportation. Such orders protect defendants from deportation once they've served their sentences. In court, the lawyer promised to ask for one.
Zheng's family thought he'd be more likely to get it if he pleaded guilty and accepted the maximum punishment. Plus, Lili says, her family was very ashamed. "Chinese culture is very interesting," she says. "Rather than going to fight for him, the family generally just basically tells him, like we did, how bad he was and how he deserves his punishment. We told him he should admit all the wrongdoings, all the crimes he had committed. But of course we didn't know what the legal ramifications were."
Neither did Eddy. Although he had an interpreter, most of the legalese used in court was beyond him. Ultimately, he was tried as an adult and pleaded guilty to eighteen counts of robbery, kidnapping, and assault with a firearm. "I didn't understand what I was pleading guilty to," he says. He expected to do somewhere between six and nine years, and didn't realize he had a life sentence until he was booked into the California Youth Authority and someone checked his paperwork.
In the confusion, a crucial omission was made. Zheng's lawyer never asked for a judicial recommendation against deportation. In 1990, such recommendations were outlawed and Zheng cannot get one retroactively. This upsets his family deeply. "If the plea bargain was to get the maximum penalty and no possibility of parole and to be tried as an adult, what did he bargain for?" his sister asks. "At that time, the only reason for a plea bargain was that he would not be kicked out of the United States."
After all, Zheng's court-ordered psychiatric evaluations concluded that he could be rehabilitated. They described him as naive and immature but genuinely remorseful, someone who could be persuaded to do wrong but did not have hardened antisocial tendencies. "Eddy is feeling confused and lost," one such evaluation concluded. "He expresses a strong desire to change, but he needs a firm and understanding guiding hand to set his course straight for him."
He was unlikely to get it in the California penal system, which is notorious for taking in petty punks and turning out dedicated thugs. Plus, Zheng was serving adult time -- he spent only a few months in the California Youth Authority before being transferred to San Quentin.
In prison, he discovered how much he enjoyed learning. He started by teaching himself to read English, largely with the help of romance novels. He moved on to more difficult material, took prep courses, and passed the GED on his first try. He took Spanish lessons, taught himself yoga, and learned how to play guitar. He loved to sit in on all types of religious services and study all areas of history -- United States, African-American, Latin-American, you name it. "Education has saved my life," he says with great feeling.
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