The key question that jurors face in the trial of Nan-Hui Jo is whether in 2009, when she fled to Korea with her young daughter, she took her daughter with malice in defying a custody situation, or whether she did so to flee an abusive and irresponsible father in order to make a better life for herself and her daughter.
Deputy District Attorney Steve Mount argued that Ms. Jo knowingly and with malice circumvented California and American custody laws and unlawfully took the child of herself and Jesse Charlton to Korea, without letting the courts determine the issue of custody.
Deputy Public Defender Dean Johansson countered that this trial comes down to the mental state of the mother, did she act with malice? He argued that Mr. Charlton filed a late custody contention after he knew she planned to leave the country and that Ms. Jo simply proceeded to leave as planned, and failed to respond to emails after Mr. Charlton threatened to track her down with a bounty hunter.
The trial is high profile, as it received a full article in the Sacramento Bee on Friday. The Vanguard published a letter from supporters of Ms. Jo, who packed the courtroom on Friday, prompting Judge David Rosenberg to admonish the jury not to attempt to read the news on this story.
One juror was questioned after it was determined that the trial had been the subject of an email and conversation at his work. Despite his claims that he had no knowledge of the matter, Mr. Johansson asked that he be excused, but that was denied by Judge Rosenberg.
The case reached trial last December but the jury hung 6-6 on the only charge of kidnapping.
In his opening statement, DDA Mount noted that, according to the law, for a child born in California, both parents have 100 percent custody and only a judge can change that.
Jesse Charlton was 11 years younger than Nan-Hui Jo. Mr. Charlton was described by both sides as a “free spirit.” He moved from couch to couch with only his backpack, his skateboard and his camera.
He had joined the army and had done two tours of duty in Iraq. There, as the result of head injuries, he suffered from concussions, PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
In 2007, he was on 70 percent disability pay and, through the GI Bill, was taking courses at Sacramento City College when he met Ms. Jo. She had come from Korea in 2002 to attend USC Film School.
She had to drop out due to expense, and she ended up getting married for a second time and going back east, but that marriage fell apart. She moved back to California and took classes in photography, her main passion, at Sacramento City College, where the two would meet in late 2007.
Mr. Mount described that the relationship began as a friendship. They would travel around and take photos together, but by November 2007 they developed a romance.
Ms. Jo’s first marriage fell apart when her baby was stillborn. She was told after that that she could not get pregnant. However, in December 2007, she found out she was indeed pregnant again.
This was a miracle to Ms. Jo, but a shock to Mr. Charlton. They had a passionate but rocky relationship from the start and the pregnancy added further tension. She would go back to Korea in June 2008 and lost touch with Mr. Charlton, only to return a month later.
According to Mr. Mount, the money she had ran out and she sought child support from Mr. Charlton to “teach him a lesson about responsibility.”
By February 2009, DNA had verified that Mr. Charlton was the father and he began to pay child support. At this point, with the baby a few months old, a relationship re-started, at least with Ms. Jo attempting to get Mr. Charlton to bond with the child. A family began for the benefit of the child, and their romance resumed.
Fueling their fighting, however, was Jesse Charlton’s irresponsible behavior, his lack of gainful employment, and his tendency to view pornography on her computer as he watched the couple’s child.
Mr. Mount argued that, in July 2009, with her immigration status expiring, Ms. Jo asked him to marry him. He said no. She was still technically married and she became desperate, as this was the only way to stay in the country.
It was at this point that the arguments grew more intense. One incident Mr. Mount described was when Mr. Charlton got so angry he repeatedly punched the steering wheel of the car and left. Mr. Mount said that Mr. Charlton did not like to argue and his PTSD meant that when he argued he would simply leave.
He didn’t return after this argument and, instead, got drunk and got arrested.
In another incident, Mr. Mount said that Ms. Jo accused Mr. Charlton of cheating and threatened to go to Korea. Ms. Jo reportedly shoved the baby at him, causing them to collide heads. Mr. Charlton responded by throwing her against the wall by the throat. This was the end of their living together.
Things escalated from there. A court date was set for November of 2009. She moved out and went to southern California to stay with Mr. Charlton’s biological father. Mr. Mount said that, at this point, she got a lawyer who advised her that the only mistake she could make in the custody dispute was not to show up in court.
Instead, she booked a flight to Korea and left. She denied the rights to Mr. Charlton to have his day in court.
He would go to Yolo Child Abduction Unit, which attempted to contact Ms. Jo via email. Eventually, by January 2010, she stopped responding, despite pleas by Mr. Charlton to allow her to have contact with their daughter.
Because there was no agreement between the US and Korea on custody issues, there was no civil means to enforce a US custody decision in Korea.
However, the State Department attempted to contact Ms. Jo in Korea during the five years she was there to do a welfare check on the child, a US citizen, but she either refused or ignored the request.
Finally, in July 2014, she filed for a visa to come back to the US. The Sacramento Superior Court issued an order to seize and return the child.
They flew to Hawaii in July of 2014 and were immediately arrested, upon landing, by Customs and flown back to Yolo County.
The child was given to the father. They had to do extensive reunification efforts and the child, now six, had no idea what had happened. According to Mr. Mount, Ms. Jo had told the child, “You’re special, you don’t have a father.”
The defense countered that this is a case that boils down to intent and, specifically, what was the intent of the mother when she fled the country. The facts in this case are fairly well-established, the details are widely divergent and Mr. Johansson subtly questioned the DA’s account of those details.
The keys to the trial are the events in 2007 and 2008, Mr. Johansson posited. Mr. Johansson argued that the two widely diverged on their reaction to the pregnancy. Ms. Jo viewed this as a miracle child after being told she could never get pregnant again and Mr. Charlton was completely unaccepting of the pregnancy and tried to convince Ms. Jo to get an abortion and tried to have his family convince her to give the baby up for adoption.
Mr. Charlton was described as a free spirit with literally three possessions – skateboard, backpack and camera. As noted above, he was receiving 70 percent disability, and his condition caused memory problems, depression and difficulty with anger control.
During this time period, he was going from couch to couch and the two were not living together. She went to school and was working, and Mr. Johansson argued that Mr. Charlton at this time was at no time providing the proper environment for the baby.
He said that Mr. Charlton put Ms. Jo on the plane to Korea and she left. But a month later she returned to resume her schooling. The two made no effort to contact each other until she applied for government assistance, which kicked in the entire welfare system which starts by attempting to identify the father.
He attempted to deny he knew Ms. Jo to avoid responsibility, but the paternity test established him as the father. When they got back together, it was her house, her lease, she was the responsible party and, if anything, he was freeloading off her.
Mr. Johansson cited court testimony from the previous trial (without stating it had come from a previous trial), where Mr. Charlton admitted that he picked her up by the throat and slammed her against the wall. Moreover, he twice broke his hand slamming it and punching his steering wheel.
She was concerned that if he had hurt her, he would do it to the child also. She was also concerned that he was watching pornography, which Mr. Johansson claimed was not the run of the mill, ordinary porn, but violent porn, at times when he was watching the baby.
These incidents, along with her mounting immigration issues and Mr. Charlton’s refusal to help her by marriage, led to her packing up her stuff and putting her belongings in storage.
She took money so that she could leave. Mr. Charlton became angry because she had taken money out of their joint account and, at the last possible moment, he started a court action to attempt to prevent her from leaving.
Ms. Jo went to southern California to stay with the family of Mr. Charlton. Mr. Charlton was making threats. She had not been served, at this point, and when she went to get an attorney, she was advised to leave the family members so that she could not be formally served.
Amid all of this, she left for South Korea. Mr. Johansson pointed out that Mr. Mount made a point that Ms. Jo was ducking Charlton’s email messages, but Mr. Johansson argued that Mr. Mount failed to note how the emails begin. Mr. Charlton threatened Ms. Jo. He told her that his friend is a bounty hunter and that she would be hunted down.
Ms. Jo struggled in South Korea to make ends meet and raise her daughter by herself.
In the end, Mr. Johansson argued this comes down to mental state. The domestic violence forced her hand to leave in fear for her safety. She failed to really understand how the legal system works. And she returned to the US voluntarily, not realizing that she was marked and would be arrested.
The child has been taken away and the defendant has not been able to see her daughter in the seven or eight months since her arrest.
—David M. Greenwald reporting