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2 Men Get Prison Time in Exorcism Death

Courts: One is given four years, and victim's husband receives two-year term at tearful hearing.

April 25, 1997|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ending an unusual case that raised emotional issues of religion and culture, a judge sentenced two Korean missionaries to state prison for their roles in a deadly exorcism.

In sentencing the ministers, who both bowed humbly before him and apologized, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James A. Albracht distinguished between the two in their roles in the beating death of Kyung-Ja Chung, 53, whom the judge described as "a good, honest woman" and mother of two teenagers.

The judge laid the most responsibility for the death and harshest possible punishment--four years--on exorcist Sung Soo Choi, 44, saying his "misguided, ill-considered conduct" caused the woman's death, as well as "almost unfathomable grief" to the participants' families and churches.

The dead woman's husband, Jae-Whoa Chung, 50, received a two-year sentence, half that of Choi. He had trusted Choi and placed faith in his advice in trying to rid his wife of demons, the judge said.

Last week, Albracht rendered the first verdict in recent times in a case involving a death from exorcism. In doing so, legal analysts noted, he bucked current legal trends by considering the case's cultural and religious strains and applying them to the defendants' mental states--key elements of homicide law.

The judge found that the missionaries were blinded by their religious zeal, and that their intent had been to help Chung, not to harm her. He convicted them of involuntary manslaughter, but cleared them of murder convictions that could have sent them to prison for life.

With credit for time served in County Jail, Chung could become eligible for parole some time this summer, attorneys said. Choi would not become eligible for parole for at least a year.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg argued Thursday that the severity and prolonged nature of the beating should bring both missionaries the maximum four-year sentence. "They had five hours to see what they were doing or stop what they were doing," he told Albracht.

Defense attorneys sought probation. Nine months in jail was punishment enough for men of God, said James Barnes, attorney for Choi.

But the judge observed Thursday that his verdicts had given the missionaries the benefit of any doubt. "We still have a dead body as a result of their misguided actions," he said. "I am struck by the tragedy to all the people whose lives were touched by this case.

They included the Chungs' two children, Hana, 18, and Hangil, 16, who tearfully begged the judge for leniency for their father.

Hangil Chung could barely be heard as he told the judge, "It's been hard," since their mother died and their father was sent to jail.

Asked by defense attorney Christopher Lee whether he believed his father deserved to go to prison for killing his mother, the teenager responded, "No. All he did was love my mother."

Hana Chung pleaded, "We need our father to be with us."

The children grew up in Bangladesh, where their parents worked for two decades as missionaries for the Korean Methodist Church.

The Chungs met Choi, a Korean Presbyterian missionary in China, during church meetings in July. He told them Kyung-Ja Chung was possessed by demons making her arrogant and disobedient to her husband. They agreed he should expel them through a ritual known as Ansukido--a combination of prayer and laying on of hands.

According to testimony, the victim was deeply bruised and suffered 16 broken ribs and internal injuries during the five-hour ritual.

"I do think that I made a mistake," Jae-Whoa Chung told the judge, adding that he would not participate again in any ritual involving physical force.

Choi bowed deeply as he apologized to the couple and broke into tears. "I'm sorry, and I apologized to the children of Rev. Chung for causing big trouble in the community. I believe it shall not happen again," Choi said. "I apologize for the death of Mrs. Chung."

Goldberg argued that Choi, when released, still could pose a danger. The prosecutor said Choi sincerely believes that the court case has made him a martyr, vindicating his work in casting out demons.

Chung, when he is released, plans to return with his children to Bangladesh, defense attorney Robert Sheahen said.

Sentencing was postponed for a third participant in the exorcism, who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and testified for the prosecution. A new sentencing date has not yet been set for Jin Hyun Choi, a deacon at Glendale Calvary Presbyterian Church. He will seek probation.

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