WE SAT IN the Japanese restaurant in South Baltimore last Monday -- two Korean-Americans and an African-American -- to eat and talk about justice, racism, crime and violence.
One of the Koreans was Kenneth Lee, father of slain Towson State University student Joel Lee. Lee smiled and laughed lightly as the conversation sometimes turned humorous. But I noticed a sadness in Lee's eyes that will probably never vanish -- not if the American criminal justice system has anything to do with it.
"I need closure in this case," Lee told me earlier as we had driven to South Baltimore. He was referring, of course, to the case of his son Joel. It is a case familiar to Marylanders by now: Joel Lee walking to a Northeast Baltimore apartment complex in September of 1993 to borrow a book from a friend. Joel Lee shot in the face and killed by a gunman. Davon Neverdon arrested as a suspect. Neverdon freed by a predominantly black Circuit Court jury in 1995. U.S. attorneys refusing to prosecute Neverdon on federal civil rights charges last month.
Dr. Yusang Chung, a former economics professor who's now a South Baltimore businessman, was the other Korean-American at the table. Both men talked about the three Korean merchants shot during robberies in the week following the decision by federal prosecutors not to charge Neverdon and wondered if a not-so-subtle message had been sent. Like, say, it's open season on Korean-Americans.
"We may never know," I tell both men. "I generally don't think street thugs are smart enough to pick up on such messages." But, the three of us wondered, was the following time-line a mere coincidence?
Wednesday, Jan. 15: Federal prosecutors decide not to prosecute Neverdon, citing their inability to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a civil rights violation was committed.
Monday, Jan. 20: Two masked men fired a shot at a Korean worker in the 2800 block of Guilford Ave. and ran off without taking any money.
Tuesday, Jan. 21: Yang Koo Yoon, 46, the owner of a Halethorpe liquor store, is shot and killed when two men rob his store.
Thursday, Jan. 23: Won Hee Ma, a 58-year-old Korean woman, was shot in the chest during a robbery attempt in the 700 block of 22nd St. She survived her wound.
We left our meeting with the question unanswered. Within a matter of hours, as if they had been listening in on our conversation, two gunmen added to the time-line with the robbery and murder of Chi Sup Kim. The thugs shot Kim in the back, in front of his wife, after he had handed over $400.
On Friday, Jan. 31, police arrested suspects in the Guilford Avenue shooting and are investigating if they were involved in the other shootings.
It is tempting to use what is called post hoc ergo propter hoc (after the fact, therefore causing the fact) logic here. To say that because event B followed event A and that A therefore caused B is regarded as shaky reasoning, at best.
But let's assume you're Korean and live or work in Baltimore. It hasn't been that long ago that Neverdon was acquitted by that jury back in 1995. Jurors claimed they didn't believe the three men who were friends of Neverdon who claim they saw him shoot Joel Lee; the woman watching from her window who said she saw the same thing; and two other men who said Neverdon told them he killed Joel Lee. If you're Korean, you figure this jury simply didn't want to find any prosecution witnesses credible.
If you're Korean you look at the federal prosecutors' refusal to take up Eric Dewitt Dunsen's offer to have himself wired so he can record his nephew, Neverdon, admitting that he killed Joel Lee because he was Korean. You look at the spate of violence that follows the federal prosecutors' decision, and you conclude a message was indeed sent to anti-Korean racists that they can commit violence against Koreans with impunity.
And it doesn't matter to you if federal prosecutors sent that message intentionally or unintentionally. You just know it's out there. It has probably been picked up by those hoodlums who have murdering Koreans on their minds, who figure that even if they're caught, they'll get a Neverdon jury, and federal prosecutors will be reluctant to prosecute on civil rights charges. If you're a Korean merchant, what do you do?
If I'm a Korean merchant, I ignore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and police Commissioner Thomas Frazier's zeal for getting guns off the street and keep a gun in my store. If anyone comes in brandishing a gun with the intent to either rob the store or kill me, I convict that person on the spot. My position is perfectly logical and just: The courts won't do it, so I'll have to.
I take that decision with reluctance and regret, realizing that once I commit to defending myself with a firearm, I allow myself absolutely no margin for error. But I take heed of the police adage that it is better to be tried by 12 than buried by six.
Pub Date: 2/02/97