A bleak tour of injustice nears its end

When David Wong Kin-chin sets foot in Hong Kong, he will escape the shadow of an injustice that has galvanised not only Asian-Americans but also human rights activists and legal heavyweights.

He has spent the past 20 years in some of New York state's bleakest and most brutal maximum security prisons - for a murder he did not commit. But sometime in the next two weeks he expects to be taken in handcuffs from the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility for the journey back to Hong Kong, where relatives, friends and supporters are planning a reunion party.

'My mum is very excited to pick him up at the Hong Kong airport, even though she doesn't know when. They haven't seen each other for more than 20 years,' says Wong's niece, Yeung Fei-fei, 28, an electrical engineering student in New York.

In a July 16 letter to one of his supporters, Wong says: 'I'm hoping by the end of this month, I will be in Hong Kong - free and chilling. I'll never forget your kindness. The struggle is everywhere in this world and it must continue.'

Wong, 43, was born in Fujian province . He dropped out of school when he was 14 and moved to Hong Kong to be reunited with his mother and sister. His troubles began after his mother decided to ship her 18-year-old son illegally to New York, where his father worked in a Chinatown restaurant.

Speaking no English, he drifted from restaurant to restaurant. In 1983, a friend coaxed him into trying to help rob his boss, a Chinese restaurant owner on Long Island.

Wong was intercepted by police, who found a gun in his pocket. He was sentenced to eight years' jail in 1984, and soon found himself at Clinton jail, a maximum-security prison in Dannemora, upstate New York.

There things took a dramatic turn on March 12, 1986, when Tyrone Julius, an African-American inmate, was stabbed to death in the prison yard. About 100 inmates, mostly black or Hispanic, were in the yard, but Wong and Cheung Tse-kin, the only two Chinese prisoners, were singled out and questioned.

Based on false testimony from prisoners, police and a prison guard who claimed to have seen Wong from a tower 70 metres away, Wong was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in August 1987 for Julius' murder.

During the trial, his public defender refused to investigate the case even though there was a lack of physical evidence - the murder weapon was never found - or motive. Wong was also unable to articulate his defence in court, since he was not provided with a translator.

He languished behind bars until 1990, when Japanese-American civil-rights activist Yuri Kochiyama uncovered his saga. The petite Kochiyama, an ally of black rights activist Malcolm X, set up the David Wong Support Committee in her Harlem apartment.

After Wong's case came to light, public support flooded in and new chapters were established as far away as California, Hawaii and Toronto. A documentary, The Fight to Free David Wong, was made and screened across US campuses.

In all, 14 lawyers volunteered to work on Wong's case, including legal heavyweights William Kunstler and William Hellerstein of Brooklyn Law School. Jaykumar Menon, 36, from the Centre for Constitutional Rights, is Wong's most recent attorney.

Mr Menon took a pay cut - earning a quarter his normal fee - when he took on Wong's case in 2000. 'For me, it was a job, then a quest [for justice]. I was in too deep and had to follow through,' he chuckles. 'It's amazing we won.'

Steven Decastro, a Filipino-American attorney in Manhattan, decided to comb through court papers trying to track down who was present when the murder took place. With publicly raised funds, the group hired private investigator Joe Barry, who spent 2 1/2 years trying to track down the man they eventually believed to be the real killer, Nelson Gutierrez, who had died.

They managed to convince former witnesses to recant their testimony against Wong. Gutierrez's wife appeared in court to testify and solve the mystery.

Despite the new evidence, Wong's request for a new trial was denied.

Mr Decastro says evidence they later unearthed showed that prison guards picked on Wong since they assumed he would be at a disadvantage because of the language barrier. 'The people we hardly understand became the scapegoats of our problems - just like those folks in Guantanamo Bay. David is just a microcosm of that,' he says.

The New York State Appellate Division eventually granted Wong a retrial, which led to the overturning of his conviction in October last year. The murder charge was dropped two months later.

While in prison, Wong taught himself English and acquired substantial legal knowledge. The thing he regrets most is missing his father's funeral a few years ago.

'In the later years, prison guards often joked that he's not a prisoner here, but a living 'esteemed figure'. David educates other prisoners on their rights,' says Mr Menon.

Wong has filed a civil lawsuit against New York state for wrongful conviction, seeking US$8 million in compensation. The battle against the authorities will continue even when he leaves US shores. 'David can send in a video testimony if he can't attend the hearings in the US. It will not stop his fight for justice,' Mr Menon said.