As three parishioners bowed their heads and prayed, a Glendale church deacon pleaded guilty Friday to involuntary manslaughter under a deal with prosecutors in which he agreed to testify about an exorcism that killed the wife of a Korean missionary.
His hands clasped behind his back, Jin Hyun Choi, a 47-year-old father of two from Glendale, stood solemnly before Superior Court Judge James A. Albracht. Choi looked at his lawyer, then softly spoke a single word--"guilty"--entering his plea in connection with the July 4 death of 53-year-old Kyung Jae Chung.
Chung died following a religious rite to drive demons out of her body. Also involved were her husband, Jae Whoa Chung, 50, and Sung Soo Choi, 42, a visiting missionary from China who is not related to the deacon.
According to police, the woman consented to the ritual and the men used their bare hands and feet to force out demons she believed were affecting her health and spirituality. The practice is known in charismatic churches as anchal prayer, a form of healing by the laying on of hands.
Authorities said healing turned to homicide when too much force was applied. In effect, they allege, Chung was stomped to death.
She suffered 16 fractured ribs after undergoing separate rituals that ended with her death at a Century City condominium. She consented to the rituals, which she believed had driven out three of the five demons that plagued her, said Encino attorney James Barnes, who represents alleged exorcist Sung Soo Choi.
Jin Hyun Choi's involvement was relatively minor, according to his lawyer, Gary Windom, a deputy public defender in Ventura County. Choi has given prosecutors a statement about the events surrounding the woman's death. He faces no more than three years in state prison if he testifies at the trial next month.
"We welcome the plea of the co-defendant," said defense attorney Robert Sheahen, who represents the dead woman's husband. "If he testifies honestly and truthfully, it guarantees the exoneration of our clients."
He added that Jae Whoa Chung and Sung Soo Choi, both ministers, are "men of God," adding, "This is not now and never has been a murder case." He described the woman's death as "an unfortunate accident."
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg contends the two ministers showed such disregard for the woman's life that they should be convicted of second-degree murder.
"The prosecution's position is, was, and always will be that this is a murder," Goldberg said. The Chungs were Methodist missionaries who had been living in Bangladesh and were en route to a conference in Chicago. Sung Soo Choi, a missionary in China, also was visiting. He offered to perform the ritual, attorneys said.
Jin Choi is deacon at the Glendale Korean Presbyterian Church.
Chung and Soo Choi, who are in custody and appeared in court with hands cuffed behind their backs, are scheduled to go on trial March 14.