OAKLAND, Calif. – Korean mother Nan-Hui Jo spent her 43rd birthday in a Yolo County jail. Just last month, she was convicted of abducting her daughter, now six and in the care of her ex-boyfriend and father of the child, Jesse Charlton. On Wednesday, she'll be sentenced by a Yolo County Superior Court judge.
Jo has read and re-read the dozens of letters sent to her by supporters from Seoul to Sacramento, many of whom believe that the case should not have been prosecuted in the first place. They say Jo took her child away from Charlton, 32, mainly because she wanted to protect herself and her child from him. One woman in Qatar wrote: “I’m writing to you so I can be of some help to you as a supporter or [to simply put] a smile on your face.” Among the letters, was one that included an artist’s rendition of Jo with her daughter.
During the trial in the Yolo County Superior Court, Charlton admitted on the witness stand that he had once grabbed Jo by her throat and threw her up against the wall after he said she tossed the baby to him. Charlton, who served two tours of duty as a machine gunner in Mosul, Iraq, testified that he suffers from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder that cause memory loss, depression and erratic behavior.
He admitted in court that Jo called the police on him twice, the second time after he broke his hand hitting the wall near her head and punching the car’s steering wheel while she was in the car with him. No charges were filed against him and the police just asked him to stay away from her for a while.
Jo came to the United States in 2002 on a student visa to study photography at the University of Southern California. Within a few months, she transferred to Los Angeles Community College. In November 2005, she married a U.S. citizen and moved to Connecticut. But when he became abusive, Jo obtained a temporary restraining order against him and moved to Sacramento and enrolled in City College there. Her husband was sentenced to one year in prison for being physically abusive to her.
She and Charlton met in 2007 in a photography class at Sacramento City College and soon became romantically involved. Charlton admitted in court that one year later, when Jo told him she was pregnant, he told her he didn’t want the baby. They named their daughter Vitz Da, which means “all light” in Korean.
In 2009, she got a letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) notifying her that her student visa had expired, and that her American husband no longer supported her green card petition. ICE told her she should voluntarily leave the country. At the time, she was working at a couple of Korean restaurants.
The fact that she no longer had legal status in the United States, that she had only limited English proficiency and no family members to turn to, coupled with her fear of being around her abusive partner, made her decide to return to South Korea in 2009, she testified at her trial. She said she told Charlton of her decision. He said she did not.
Charlton filed a complaint with law officials, saying his girlfriend had abducted their baby. In the nearly five years she was in Korea, Charlton said he sent Jo scores of emails informing her that he had made something of his life. He had finished college, he wrote, and got himself a job as a substitute teacher. He missed Vitz Da, he said. Jo responded to only one email.
Last July, Jo decided to visit Hawaii on a tourist visa to check out schools there for her daughter. When she applied for the visa, officials in Seoul notified U.S. law officials. When she arrived at the airport in Honolulu, a U.S. Child Abduction unit, officials of the Customs and Border Protection and her former partner were waiting for her. She was promptly arrested and Charlton was subsequently given custody of Vitz Da by a family law court in Sacramento.
As a result of her case, Jo has experienced an outpouring of community support rarely seen by victims of domestic violence.
Groups like the Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Violence, Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans (HOBAK), the Asian Law Caucus, Immigration Youth Coalition, churches and women’s support groups nationwide have held protest rallies in their communities to help Jo. They came from far off places and packed the court during her trial. The organizations partnered with student groups and Korean American churches to bring attention to the case through Facebook and Twitter (#StandWithNanHui and #WeSurvived). They have sent letters to Yolo County Superior Judge David Rosenberg asking him to consider reducing her felony conviction to a misdemeanor. They have also asked ICE to remove the deportation hold on her.
The judge and ICE have the “prosecutorial discretion” to do those things, noted Saira Hussain, a staff attorney with the San Francisco office of the Asian Law Caucus. Supporters are planning to ride in caravans to Woodland and show up for her sentencing in large numbers, wearing purple ribbons – the color of domestic violence awareness.
But even if she succeeds in the criminal and immigration arenas, Jo will still have to battle it out in family court to be part of her child’s life. For her, living out the rest of her life without Vitz Da is unthinkable, observed Juhee Kwon, a core supporter of the #StandWithNanHui campaign who is lending Jo’s attorneys legal support. “There are so many different systems in interplay” in Jo’s case, Hussain said.
But ultimately, she said, Jo’s supporters are willing to do whatever it takes to reunite Jo with her daughter. After all, she said, Jo “has been a wonderful mother” to Vitz Da.
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