Friday, May 4, 2001

Killer not allowed
to withdraw plea

Richard Chong says he was on
medication when he pleaded guilty

By Debra Barayuga

Accused murderer Richard "China" Chong will not go to trial for first-degree murder in a drug-related shooting after all.

U.S. District Judge Alan C. Kay yesterday refused to allow Chong to withdraw his guilty plea and stand trial.

Chong could have been Hawaii's first death penalty case in decades had he not pleaded.

Under an agreement reached less than a week before he was to stand trial in January 2000, Chong agreed to plead guilty to carrying and using a firearm to kill William Noa Jr., 33, at Lahilahi Park over a $100 drug debt in September 1997.

In exchange the federal government agreed to drop its death penalty prosecution.

When sentenced at a later date, Chong faces life without the possibility of parole.

Chong, in a letter to the court about six months after his plea and just days before he was to be sentenced, asked that he be allowed to withdraw his plea because the medication he was taking at the time impaired his ability to think clearly.

Government prosecutors opposed Chong's request, calling it a "deliberate, planned attempt by a savvy veteran of the criminal justice system to hoax the government into withdrawing its demand for the death penalty."

Kay ruled yesterday that Chong was questioned at length during his guilty plea on Jan. 13, 2000, and that he was responsive and attentive throughout the proceedings.

Chong knowingly and under oath pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, Kay said. When asked repeatedly whether he understood what he was pleading to and the elements of the offense, Chong replied that he understood.

Birney Bervar, one of Chong's attorneys, said Chong is "obviously disappointed and intends to appeal."

Chong since the beginning had resisted his attorneys' advice that he plead guilty because he did not intend to kill Noa nor plan to kill him.

"I shot Mr. Noa, but not in premeditation," Chong told the court yesterday.

He contends Noa stepped toward him and he reacted in fear.

"I not even conscious of what happened. ... I get fear in me."

He said, however, that he had brought a gun with him because he had heard Noa carried a knife.

Chong said the medication he was taking at the time of his plea made him "wimpy" - making him lose his focus and his will to fight his case.

He said agreed to plead because he did not want to fight his lawyers, whom he knew were only looking after his best interests, and he also felt for the victims in the case.

"A big part of me is people involved -- I no like them go through more stuff," he said.

He also wanted a resolution to the case.

"I get one life, too. I like some closure. I like the truth come out, too, and the only way the truth come out is go trial."

Chong said that at the hearing where he pleaded guilty, he did not recall what was being asked of him and was "just going along with what he was expected to say."

Had he not been on medication, he would not have pleaded guilty, Chong said.

It was in Chong's best interest to plead guilty to first-degree murder because of the risks of going to trial in a death penalty case, said Assistant Federal Public Defender Michael Weight, one of three attorneys who had represented Chong until he made the request to withdraw his plea.

Weight said he felt Chong was competent to plead guilty at the time and that the medication had helped Chong focus and made him less agitated.

Had Chong not been taking the medication, "there wouldn't have been a plea in this case."

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