The Magazine

JUSTICE DENIED

How To Avoid a Mass-Murder Trial for 13 Years, At Taxpayer Expense

Sep 14, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 01 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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In June 1985, two former Marines turned would-be survivalists -- Leonard Lake and Charles Ng -- were caught shoplifting a $ 75 vise from a hardware store in South San Francisco. Ng managed to flee. His friend Lake, while in custody, wrote a note to his exwife, then killed himself, swallowing a cyanide pill he kept in case of emergency. When police discovered that the two had been driving a stolen car belonging to a missing San Francisco man, they obtained a warrant to search Lake's home in Wilseyville, Calif., in Calaveras County (of Mark Twain jumping-frog fame). There they found charred bones, shallow graves, a sexual torture chamber, Lake's diary, and videotapes of women who were forced to serve as sexual slaves during the short remainder of their lives.


Authorities believe Ng and Lake killed as many as 19 men, women, and children -- the men, in order to steal their cars, video equipment, and other belongings; the women for sexual torture; and two babies because they were unfortunate enough to be in harm's way. Two entire families -- Harvey Dubs, his wife Deborah, and their baby, Sean, as well as Brenda O'Connor, Lonnie Bond Sr., and their baby, Lonnie Bond Jr. -- were killed. Ng was eventually charged with the murder of 12 victims, a capital offense. That was in the summer of 1985: Ronald Reagan was president, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." topped the charts, and Charlie Ng was a 24-year-old fugitive from justice.


Today, 13 years and two presidents later, 37-year-old Charlie Ng has still managed to avoid going to trial, even though he was in custody within a month. Witnesses have died, evidence has moldered, defense lawyers and judges have come and gone, while Ng has pulled out every stop in the justice system to delay his day in court -- an odd strategy, it might seem, for a man who claims to be innocent. With any luck, his trial will begin later this month in an Orange County courtroom. But already, California's prosecution of Ng is the most expensive in the state's history, with costs approaching $ 10 million. The case has become a monument to a criminal-defense system run amok.


"We hope we live long enough to see the trial," Lola Stapley said last year. Stapley, 70, believes Lake and Ng tortured and shot her youngest son, Scott, on April 22, 1985. But even if Ng is "found guilty and is given the death penalty," she said, "we fully don't expect to live that long" -- since the death-penalty appeals could easily last another decade.


How has Ng done it? Cunning, luck, and exploitation of every legal loophole he could find.


Ng's first smart move was to flee to Canada. That's where police picked him up a month after Lake's suicide. Ng was arrested when he shot a security guard who spotted him shoplifting food in Calgary. He was tried and sentenced to four and a half years in a Canadian prison. California sought extradition, but Canada, which abolished the death penalty in 1976, was reluctant to deport Ng to a country that executes mass murderers. Nonetheless, in 1991, rather than turn Canada into a haven for fugitive murderers, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that Ng could be extradited to the United States without soiling Canada's commitment to human rights. Still, Charlie had won six years.


The day of the court's ruling, Canada shipped Ng back to California. The San Francisco Chronicle reported, "Once Ng is arraigned, prosecutors say they hope he will face trial soon." Wrong.


Prosecutors in Calaveras County did put Ng through a preliminary hearing to determine whether he should be held for trial. Because the Hong Kong native was caught with escape paraphernalia and was considered extremely dangerous, he appeared at the hearing handcuffed, shackled, and placed in a steel security cage. In photos, his lean body seemed to be itching to leap out of his prison jumpsuit.


During his years in captivity, Ng mastered the art of tying up the courts. By 1994, when the trial venue was changed to Orange County, he had gone through five judges, some of whom tossed the case from their benches like a hot potato. The state supreme court had ruled on his representation eight times. Ng had even found time to slap two of his taxpayer-funded lawyers with a $ 1 million civil malpractice suit, claiming that he would not have been charged with murder if they had done a better job.


Ng's best friend was the "Marsden motion," used by a defendant to request a new defense lawyer. Ng has used this device repeatedly to postpone his day of justice, going through at least 10 taxpayer-funded attorneys. This abuse of process naturally angers judges. But so what? Ng has turned this to his advantage, managing to rid himself of judges, too.