A South Carolina prosecutor was ready to send a Laotian opium smoker to prison for 25 years as a drug trafficker, but that was too much for jurors to swallow. Instead, they found him not guilty and sent him home to his family, the York Herald reported last Friday.
Yer Vang had survived slave labor camps and being hunted by Southeast Asian communists, but he nearly fell prey to a prosecutor long on vindictiveness and short on proportionality. Vang, a 44-year-old Hmong refugee, was arrested as he smoked opium in his living room after police came to the house in October 2003 looking for his son, who was suspected of selling Ecstasy. Police arrested Vang and seized nearly a pound of opium.
Although Vang freely admitted being an opium addict and there was no evidence he had ever sold any of his stash, York County prosecutor E.B. Springs charged him with drug trafficking based on the weight of the seized opium. "It doesn't matter that he's an addict," Springs told the court. "Most crack dealers are addicts."
Springs conceded there was no evidence Vang was an opium dealer, but told jurors he did not have to prove the Vang actually sold any opium because South Carolina law allowed a trafficking charge based on weight alone. But after defense counsel Chris Wellborn described Vang's life story to the jurors, they grew queasy at the notion of imprisoning him for decades. Vang was drafted into the Laotian military as a teenager, imprisoned for two years in a North Vietnamese POW camp, acquired his opium habit after a grueling trek back to Laos in 1975, then escaped to Thailand in 1978 and eventually made his way to the US, where he joined an estimated 300,000 Hmong refugees.
As it deliberated, the jury sent a note to the judge asking whether it had to obey the spirit of the law or the letter of the law. But without waiting for the judge's response, a few minutes later the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and the construction worker returned home to his wife and 11 children.
Prosecutor Springs had turned down a Vang offer to plead guilty to simple possession, instead offering to send him to prison for only nine years if he copped a plea to the trafficking charge. Now, Springs ends up with nothing, and he still doesn't get it. "The victim here is the community," Springs said. "They felt sorrier for the defendant than they did for the community. He admitted he had the drugs," Springs said. "The law says you can't possess the drugs."
"This is a victory for common sense and what's just," said Vang's attorney, Chris Wellborn. "I don't see that it benefits the people of South Carolina or this community to put an addict in jail for 25 years." Neither, apparently, did the jury, despite Springs' fulminations.