Acquittal ends case of conflicting cultures

April 09, 1991|By Sheridan Lyons

His lawyer and two different judges urged him to consider copping a plea, but for Chung Wong Ma, it was a question of face.

He admitted swinging the meat cleaver that nearly severed the hand of a man who had insulted his mother; he had offered to drive the man to the hospital; he had said he would help pay the man's medical expenses.

But it was self-defense, Mr. Ma insisted, and he would not plead guilty to a crime in an American courtroom.

So every day last week, Mr. Ma sat at a defense table, being tried by a Baltimore Circuit Court jury for assault with intent to murder, for assault with intent to maim, for assault, and for carrying a deadly weapon. All of the proceedings had to be translated for him into Cantonese.

The 36-year-old father of three young children could have received up to life in prison. But yesterday the jury returned its verdict, acquitting Mr. Ma on the two more serious charges -- one juror later called them "ridiculous" -- and announcing to the judge that they had deadlocked by a 10-2 vote yesterday morning on the simple assault and deadly-weapon charges.

"I no guilty? I no guilty, yes?" Mr. Ma asked. Upon having the verdict explained, he said he was happy, but wore the same tense look he had throughout the trial -- all the while thanking everyone in sight.

Assistant state's Attorney Lawrence C. Doan said he probably will seek another trial on the unresolved charges.

The weeklong case before Judge Ellen M. Heller brought an ancient culture and its values into the adversarial arena of the U.S justice system with its imperative of finding a winner and a loser.

"It was my perception that the defendant truly believes that this is something that should be handled in a non-criminal context," said Judge John Carroll Byrnes, who was involved in the case at an earlier stage.

"I have some familiarity with the Chinese tradition [of resolving disputes] in the neighborhood, with an acknowledgment that a party did a wrong and the community leadership would be involved to say, 'You did it. We have to resolve this in a way that you will be rehabilitated.' "

The case had its beginning on Nov. 1, 1990, when a group of nine or 10 men -- including Mr. Ma -- gathered to play mah-jongg and cards and have a meal in a Chinese social club on the second floor of a row house in the 300 block of Park Avenue, in what remains of Baltimore's Chinatown.

They had cooked and were finishing a meal at 3 a.m. when an argument began between Mr. Ma and another man, Tony Cheung, 41, a Baltimore waiter and former Hong Kong police detective.

Mr. Ma testified that his mother was insulted; Mr. Cheung said Mr. Ma was swearing at him.

Pushing and shoving ensued and Mr. Ma was punched in the face before the two men were separated.

Mr. Cheung said he thought the incident was over when Mr. Ma suddenly charged from the kitchen wielding a 3-inch by 8-inch meat cleaver and yelling, "I'll cut you to pieces" as Mr. Cheung tried to defend himself with a bar stool.

Mr. Cheung was severely cut at the wrist and finger and Mr. Ma was arrested.

Almost no one expected the case would go to trial -- and in a routine American context, it probably wouldn't have. Negotiations over a plea took place with two different judges and both times Mr. Ma was assured he would be put on probation and would not go to jail.

Stuart J. Snyder, Mr. Ma's lawyer, recommended to his client that he take the plea bargain.

But Mr. Ma said no.

"I am an honest person," Mr. Ma testified through a translator during his trial. ". . . I don't think I cut him on purpose and since the accident I have been thinking every day about how this happened."

Mr. Cheung, who came to the United States in 1989, testified in Chinese that he has lost much of the use of his left hand and is unable to work, and showed the scars on his wrist and index finger.

He denied insulting Mr. Ma's ancestors and said the defendant attacked him almost without provocation.

Before trial last week, Mr. Snyder said that Mr. Ma felt he couldn't plead guilty because of the shame.

But Mr. Doan, the prosecutor, argued to the jury that it was precisely this fear of losing face that had caused Mr. Ma to attack Mr. Cheung with the knife.

Judge Byrnes said he saw the case as "a fascinating cultural clash in the courtroom -- a case that might have been settled within the Chinese community."

"I saw this case as being resolvable in the Chinese way," Judge Byrnes said. "It was like a family dispute that escalated."

But our system "requires some acknowledgment of guilt; it's where we part ways with the Chinese," he said.

"The gentleman was willing to pay restitution but not willing to admit guilt -- and we have no other way."

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