The radio host so convinced of some Hong Kong inmates' innocence she's reinvestigating their cases
Grace Woo is winning fans for her investigations into some of Hong Kong's most notorious crimes
A con artist posing as a film producer dupes starlets into having sex with him and then blackmails them. An unemployed man with serial-killer fantasies murders his parents, and cuts up and cooks their bodies while he figures out how to dispose of the parts. Such true crimes often fascinate us even as we are sickened by their inhumanity or cruelty. But for radio host Grace Woo Li-kan, it's a consuming interest that has turned into a career. This month, she even quit all her radio gigs to set up her own internet channel focusing on real crimes.
Woo first delved into these cases while working as a researcher on Dangerous People, a Commercial Radio programme that examined the most horrific crimes in Hong Kong and overseas.
A few years ago, she began hosting her own true crime shows, one with the Digital Broadcasting Corporation (DBC) and the other with internet station memehk.com The latter was titled 99 Tung Tau Wan Road, the address of Stanley Prison, which she visited regularly to obtain the inmates' side of the story.
In the process, Woo became so convinced of some prisoners' innocence that she began investigating their cases in the hope of uncovering fresh evidence that might help to overturn their convictions.
"Of course, the chance of success is very slim, but from my research, I know that government-appointed defence lawyers can be quite weak," she says. "There have been miscarriages of justice, especially in cases that happened decades ago."
Read more: 'Hello Kitty' murder to the 'Jars' killer: Five of Hong Kong's most gruesome crimes since the '80s
One cause she has taken up is that of Yue Wai-fat, a jobless man who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998 for stabbing a Taiwanese tourist to death while trying to rob her in a lift. In 2004, Yue wrote a petition letter to the Legal Aid Services Council, claiming he had been beaten into confessing. He secured help from legislator Leung Yiu-chung, who gathered new evidence and called on then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to order a review.
"Nothing came out of it eventually," says Woo, a Chinese studies graduate from the University of Hong Kong. "But over the past decade, I kept getting letters from [Yue], which prompted me to dig into his case."
Although Yue had a record of drug possession, Woo says there were inconsistencies in the evidence. For example, his features did not match the description in the witness statement yet the victim's sister, who was at the scene, picked him out of more than 1,000 photos. "It is likely to be a case of misidentification," Woo says. "His conviction was solely based on his confession and witness identification."
Woo, who secured taped records of the trial through a lawyer friend, about 60 cassettes, helped him to apply to the Court of Final Appeal for leave to appeal out of time.
"His lawyer met him just one day before they appeared in court. [Yue] asked his lawyer to check records of calls that he made from home at the time of the crime as proof of his alibi, but the lawyer told him such evidence was useless."
She has compiled her research on these cases into a book, also titled 99 Tung Tau Wan Road, which was released in June. The internet radio show has attracted 1,000 subscribers, a community of crime buffs made up of housewives, retirees and professionals, who pay HK$99 each for a three-month package.
They can be highly engaged listeners; Woo has attracted fans to create short radio dramas to preface discussions about specific cases. Others have helped to make videos for her online show, visiting crime scenes, interviewing neighbours for possible clues and shooting video reconstructions of the crimes.
Witnesses and even prisoners' families have gone on the air to share their stories, Woo says, including a piano teacher who was present when a mental patient entered a Cheung Sha Wan kindergarten in 1982 and knifed three children to death. The teacher's daughter was a fan of the show, and helped persuade her mother to give an account of what had happened.
In another case, the son of jailed businessman Chin Chi-ming called in to give a more positive view of his father.
It gave the 1991 case "another dimension", Woo says, of the man who posed as a film executive and tricked several young women, including starlets dubbed Misses A, B, C, D and E, into having sex with him, and then blackmailed them.
Perhaps the most infamous prisoner she has come to know is Au Yeung Ping-keung, the ice cream vendor sentenced to life for the murder of a 16-year-old schoolgirl, whose naked and mutilated body was found in a cardboard box in Happy Valley in 1974.
Its sensational nature aside, the case was significant for being the first murder conviction in Hong Kong that was based purely on forensic evidence. But Au Yeung has maintained he was wrongly convicted and went on a hunger strike in jail to protest his innocence. He was granted early release in 2002 for good behaviour after serving 28 years. Woo got to know him through her prison visits, so when she contacted him last year for her research into the cases, Au Yeung visited her at home. Before he left, he asked whether he could get a judicial review into his case, she recalls. "I used my phone to video him talking about his case. That was the first time he had talked about it since leaving prison."
Au Yeung's case is likely to feature when she launches her own internet crime channel.
"There are a lot of restrictions with operating through a big online radio station. You need to split the revenue with them. Sometimes they don't have enough support staff and equipment," she says. "Without a job, I can spend more time going to the courts and doing more research."
Woo concedes that she faces many challenges with the launch. Lacking financial resources, she plans to offer friendly sound mixers and videographers stakes in the business in return for their help.
She can build on a base of paying fans likely to follow her from the show on memehk.com
"Most fee-charging radio programmes are with meme. These are aimed at niche audiences, focusing on topics such as UFOs, supernatural phenomena and conspiracy theories. Listeners are usually hardcore fans who are willing to pay."
And while Woo concedes that some listeners like to dwell on the gore and violence, she says her goal is to produce quality programming rather than trade on sensationalism.
"Getting to the bottom of these cases can help boost listeners' critical thinking," she says. "They need to pay attention to the tiniest details to look for clues. The cases also reveal a panoply of human character. Many things are not black and white; there's a lot of grey in between. My years of experience looking into these cases helps me better understand human nature."