Little Saigon's Duc Hong Truong--the offspring of an unknown, irresponsible American soldier--isn't a lawyer but he's sitting in Calipatria State Prison and wondering why an important 1984 court opinion, People v. Dillon, doesn't apply to him.
Dillon was a 17-year-old high school student who committed a robbery and then brutally killed his victim. Police captured him, a jury convicted him and a superior court judge sentenced him to a term of 25 years to life in prison.
But the California Supreme Court ruled that the punishment was "grossly disproportional" and ordered the trial judge to reduce the severity.
Truong, who grew up homeless in Vietnam before he was relocated to the U.S. because he is Amerasian, believes that he is far less culpable of criminal conduct than Dillon and yet is serving a much more unreasonable sentence: life in prison without the possibility of parole.
For example, unlike Dillon who extensively planned his crime and fired nine times with a shotgun at his victim, Truong accompanied his friends to a motel room thinking they were going to beat up an enemy. He was, he claims, unaware that a revenge robbery would occur and, though he did strike the fatal knife blow in the victim, the death was, he insists, unintentional. His evidence? He didn't stab the head, lungs or the heart but rather the victim's leg.
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Such logic has caused Truong--who lost his freedom at the age of 20 and has spent 18 years locked in prison--to ask a series of judicial officials to reconsider and, like Dillon, reduce his punishment. A state court of appeal declined his request and the state supreme court twice also refused.
This month, U.S. District Court Judge John A. Kronstadt, a President Barack Obama appointee, ruled that federal law prevents him from considering the merits of Truong's complaint. Kronstadt determined that the defendant waited too long to seek federal intervention and that the reasoning for the delay--Truong is illiterate, barely speaks English and was unaware of the statute of limitations clock until recently--is irrelevant.
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse at all," magistrate Judge Ralph Zarefsky declared in a report recommending to close the case and leave Truong a permanent prisoner.