This is a terrible story of the American legal system getting it really wrong.
Nan-Hui Jo is a single mother of 6-year-old daughter Hwi. Jo is currently imprisoned in the Yolo County jail facing trumped up child abduction charges after she made the impossible decision to take her daughter home to South Korea, in hopes of escaping the physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon her by the child’s father, Iraq war veteran Jesse Charlton.
For five years, Jo cared for Hwi in South Korea; for that same five years, Charlton sent over a hundred emails to Nan-Hui that ranged from concern to threats of hiring a bounty hunter. Unbeknownst to Jo, Charlton also filed charges against Nan-Hui for child abduction. When Jo — a Korean national in the process of applying for permanent residency — applied to travel to Hawaii to check out schools for the American-born Hwi, ICE was notified by the US embassy in Seoul and Jo was arrested and sent to Yolo County to stand trial on the child abduction charges. Meanwhil, Hwi was sent to live with Charlton — a father she didn’t know — who has since denied Jo a chance to see her daughter.
Jo’s first trial last December on the child abduction charges ended in a hung jury. Now, she faces retrial and, if she loses, will likely be deported without ever having a chance to see her daughter again.
Cho came to America in 2002 to study film at the University of Southern California, and transferred after a semester to Los Angeles Community College — she currently works as a writer of children’s books. In 2005, Jo moved from California to Connecticut after marrying another man who was a US citizen; however, after he physically abused her, the man was arrested and convicted of domestic assault charges and Jo filed for divorce. Although her ex-husband has withdrawn his sponsorship of her marriage-based green card, Jo is currently in the midst of obtaining permanent residency status based on her status as a survivor of violent crime related to this earlier assault case.
Upon leaving her first husband, Jo returned to California where she met Jesse Charlton, who had been recently discharged from the Army after serving two tours in Iraq. Charlton returned stateside after surviving a number of roadside bombs. In America, Charlton was homeless and with PTSD so severe that the Veterans Affairs Department determined him to be 70% disabled manifesting as erratic behaviour, memory loss, depression and other symptoms of traumatic brain injury.
Jo and Charlton were romantically involved between 2007 and 2008, and conceived Hwi. Charlton testified in Jo’s first trial that he was originally dismayed by the pregnancy, and didn’t want Hwi; he also became physically abusive against Jo — sometimes so severely that police were called. From the Sacramento Bee:
[Jo] said she worked at two local Korean restaurants and had a student loan, but had received a letter from the U.S. government telling her her visa had expired, her American husband no longer supported her green card petition and she would have to leave the country immediately.
“I didn’t have a working permit, I didn’t have a driver’s license, and Jesse didn’t care,” she testified. “I couldn’t survive here.”
Jo gave Charlton a ring, according to Korean custom, but he said they couldn’t get married because her divorce wasn’t final. He admitted Jo called the police a second time after he broke his hand hitting the wall and punched the car’s steering wheel. “Usually, Jesse is a fairly peaceful person, but Jesse explained to me sometimes his personality or characteristics just completely change. … You can see it from his eyes,” she testified.
Jo also said she was worried about her baby daughter watching when Charlton viewed porn on her laptop while Jo was at school.
In the first trial, Charlton also testified that in a separate incident, he had once grabbed Jo by the throat and thrown her against a wall. Police were also called to respond to that incident, but only told Charlton to “leave for awhile”.
In 2009, Jo made the decision to return to Korea with Hwi to escape the relationship; but, when Jo took steps to try and secure a better educational future for her American child, she was arrested and now faces trial and possible deportation. Meanwhile, Charlton — who now works as a substitute teacher — has already been granted full custody for Hwi, meaning that even if Jo beats the child abduction charges, it’s possible she may still never regain custody of her child.
California’s domestic violence survivor groups and Korean American community have rallied behind Nan-Hui Jo, viewing the case as a punitive misapplication of criminal and immigration law against a survivor of domestic abuse who was attempting to escape a dangerous, potentially life threatening, situation. This statement is currently being circulated through social media:
Friends, we really really need your help. Nan-Hui Jo, a single undocumented Korean mother and survivor of domestic violence is facing potential deportation by ICE. As a desperate final push, we’re asking all of you to put pressure on ICE to use their prosecutorial discretion to drop the charge.
In 2009, Nan-Hui Jo and her daughter fled to South Korea to escape her then abusive partner and child’s father, Jesse Charlton. He then falsely charged her with “child abduction.” When she returned to the States in 2014, her daughter was taken from her and given over to the custody of the abuser without any oversight by Child Protective Services. She was arrested and has been in jail for six months, and has not been allowed any contact with her daughter. This is the SECOND TIME that she has been forced to stand trial to defend her actions. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, even though the abuser admitted in court to having choked her and thrown her against the wall (which doesn’t even give a tiny glimpse into the scope of violence she experienced from him). Now, the DA, from the historically hyper-conservative Yolo County (Sacramento, CA), is attempting to re-try her. This time she faces deportation charge by ICE, which would forbid her from returning to the States and separate her from her daughter indefinitely.
Local activists are asking for your help in supporting Nan-Hui Cho:
We’re asking you to support Nan-Hui in one or all of the following ways:
1. SIGN THE PETITION
Sign and circulate this petition for Nan-Hui.
2. COURT WATCH
We are asking a group of supporters to court watch while trial is in session from 8:30-4:00. It is public session, so people can enter and leave at any time. Supporters will be wearing purple ribbons and sit in the rows directly behind Nan-Hui to show her visible, but silent support.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in attending and carpooling from the East Bay.
3. TWITTER STORM @ WED 2/25 | 10AM PST
Nan-Hui will start her testimony on Wed at 10AM. We are asking folks to show their solidarity by sharing Nan-Hui’s story + speak out to tell your own family stories around domestic violence at the same time that she testifies. Use hashtags #WeSurvived and #StandWithNanHui. As we stand with Nan-Hui, we stand with all survivors of domestic violence and their children.
Guidelines for how to share your story can be found at this Google Doc.
4. INVITE YOUR FRIENDS AND LOVED ONES
All of them. Yes, all of them.
In micro-studies, nearly two-thirds of Asian or Asian American women surveyed said they had experienced or witnessed physical or emotional abuse committed by husbands or loved ones. The vast majority of these crimes likely go unreported, particularly when complicated by factors such as the survivor’s undocumented or unnaturalized visa status or limited English language proficiency; over 60% of Asian Americans are foreign-born, and 30% of Asian Americans speak little or no English. Cases like Nan-Hui’s can only serve to drive victims and survivors of domestic violence further underground by sending the message that the legal system will not protect survivors who take steps to escape their abusers. Instead, Nan-Hui’s case sends the clear message that a woman who seeks to protect herself and her child will be treated as a criminal.
I strongly urge you to #StandWithNanHui and take part in the actions outlined above. Also please share this post to help share Nan-Hui’s story.
Update: An earlier version of this post had Jo’s last name mis-Romanized as “Cho”. I apologize for the error.