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It was in the Hole that Zheng experienced his lowest point. He'd been getting letters from his mother that her health was faltering and that he should stop sticking his neck out and just come home. Zheng despaired, knowing that at his next parole hearing he'd have an administrative violation to explain. If he'd been denied with a clean record, what chance did he have this time?
Strangely, it was also in the Hole that Zheng felt most alive. The Asian studies petition had turned him into a cause célèbre. Victor Hwang of the Asian American Bar Association had rallied other lawyers to his defense, and his legislative supporters by that point included Senate President John Burton, Assembly Majority Leader Wilma Chan, Congressman Mike Honda, and Assemblymembers Leland Yee, Loni Hancock, and Judy Chu, among others. Zheng became what one observer dubbed "the Asian Mumia," a model prisoner of reform whom even an Asian community reluctant to talk about youth incarceration could embrace. And of course, he was no longer young -- he was a bespectacled man, beginning to gray above the ears, finally coming to terms with himself. As he wrote in one part of a poem that he titled "Autobiography @ 33":
I never felt such extreme peace
despite being mired in constant ear-deafening screams
from the caged occupants ...
drop-outs, parole violators, lifers
drug casualties, three strikers,
in San Quentin's 150 year old solitary confinement
I don't want to start things over
I am very proud of being who I am
Enter Peter Kang, a San Francisco patent attorney. Despite having no civil rights experience, Kang was so outraged by Zheng's punishment that he filed an appeal designed to expunge his record before his next parole hearing. The charges against Zheng had nothing to do with Asian studies, or even passing papers to outsiders, Kang says: "They basically didn't like the fact that a bunch of prisoners were getting educated and uppity and trumped him up on these bogus charges." Kang argued that Zheng's free-speech rights were being abridged and that his punishment was too severe. It took a year, but he won the appeal. Zheng even was awarded a small monetary settlement.
Things began happening quickly. With Zheng's record expunged, in November, 2004, the board approved his parole. What changed its ruling? Wattley says we'll probably never know -- the board doesn't have to give reasons.
Not that anyone on Zheng's legal team was going to question the good news -- or had much time to. Suddenly Zheng faced deportation. His army of lawyers took on two more recruits, each pursuing different lines of defense: immigration attorney Zachary Nightingale and criminal attorney Alex Reisman, who pored over Zheng's old court transcripts and discovered the mistake regarding the judicial recommendation against deportation. Reisman believes it's a big enough error to argue that Zheng had insufficient counsel as a teenager, and that his convictions were obtained in violation of his right to due process of law and effective assistance of counsel. He has filed a motion that could vacate Zheng's convictions and at least temporarily halt deportation proceedings. At that point, the San Francisco District Attorney's office, which originally prosecuted Zheng, would have the choice of either dropping the case or refiling the charges. Rather than retry a twenty-year-old case, Reisman hopes the DA might be willing to cut a deal and thereby lessen the argument for Zheng's deportation.
But Zheng's sudden fame also has had another side effect: It has brought him back into the Tam family's life. Although they were notified of Zheng's parole hearings every year, family members never voiced an objection. However, after being contacted about the deportation case by the Department of Homeland Security, the Tam siblings Googled Zheng's name, discovered his Web site and blog, and were shocked to see him glowingly described as though he were a prisoner of conscience and not a convicted felon. Jenny Tam, now a sociology student, and David Tam, now a financial consultant, felt that Zheng was being lionized without anyone hearing their side of the story. "It's an insult to be referred to as his little mistake," Jenny says. "They don't realize how hurt we were." Adds her brother, "He was Asian, but he robbed an Asian family. So the Asian community that is standing up for him should realize there is an Asian family that is a victim at the same time."
Although they concede that Zheng's sentence has been long enough, both support his deportation. "If you break the rules of the society you live in, guess what, pal?" David asks. "You get sent back to the society you came from. It's like driving -- that's a privilege. You drive drunk, you break the law, and you lose that privilege." And while he respects Zheng's efforts in jail, he says, "I honestly don't believe anyone can make a true change deep down inside."
His sister is more willing to believe that Zheng could have transformed himself. "They're trying to make Eddy out to actually be one of the guiding forces in the community, and if that's the case, that would be so wonderful to have somebody like that," she says. "I'm skeptical and need more proof. I don't think it's acceptable proof to see what he does in jail." After all, she says, it's easy to be good in prison. You're under surveillance, you're trying to impress the parole board, you have time on your hands, so you might as well volunteer. "I'd like to see what he does when he has a choice," Jenny says. "I wish the best for him, but far away from my family."
Zheng would tell you it's actually very hard to be good in prison. Even under lockdown you can score drugs, join gangs, or get into fights. "In prison, it takes a solid individual, a mature adult who has respect for himself to have willpower not to do bad," he says. "People can go into prison and come out worse, so that all they want to do when they come out is victimize people and continue the cycle of violence. But I sought out alternatives to transform my life. ... The person that I was is someone that I've left behind for nineteen years. I feel very remorseful for the crime I committed and to the victims; I always hold them in my heart. They have a life sentence like I do."
In a life driven largely by imprudent youthful impulses and forces outside of his control, Zheng tries to employ the Buddhist philosophy of letting go, of being open to whatever comes next. With so many separate legal battles being waged on his behalf, what that might be is anyone's guess.
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