Korean Missionaries’ Murder Case Pits Religion, Culture and Law
A single event, two completely different interpretations.
As a murder trial unfolds this month before a judge in Malibu, it raises complex issues of religion and culture, and the roles they played in a bare-knuckled, hands-on slaying.
A fatal beating is usually recognized as one of the most intensely personal ways of killing someone. But was the slaying last summer of 53-year-old Kyung Jae Chung--which occurred during an hours-long rite to cast out demons--murder or a mistake?
The potentially precedent-setting decision rests with Superior Court Judge James A. Albracht, who is hearing the trial of two Korean missionaries accused of second-degree murder. The dead woman’s husband of almost 20 years, minister Jae Whoa Chung, 44, and evangelist Sung Soo Choi, 41, face 15 years to life in state prison if they are convicted of the most serious charge.
The Chungs had been married since 1977. Both worked as missionaries in Bangladesh, sponsored by dozens of American churches, including Choong Hyun Mission Church in Glendale. They arrived in Los Angeles last June as part of an annual business trip to report back to their sponsors. They also had planned to attend a conference of Korean Pentecostals in Chicago before returning to the mission school they ran abroad.
Choi, a missionary in China, was also in Los Angeles visiting his sponsors, including Glendale Calvary Presbyterian Church. He had never met the Chungs before, when, during a July 3 prayer session at a private home, he determined that a demon dwelled within Kyung Chung. A healer herself, she had last undergone a demon-cleansing ritual three years earlier in Korea.
Her death July 4 has become the third court case stemming from a Korean exorcism in the United States, but the first to result in a murder trial.
An earlier fatality, in Oakland, was resolved last year with guilty pleas to manslaughter by two women who are now serving three-year prison terms. Religion experts say the only other parallel in modern times that they can recall is the case of an Appalachian snake handler prosecuted for murder after a child was bitten by a poisonous serpent and died.
To prove murder in the Chung death, the prosecution must demonstrate that the ministers’ actions were so extreme, they held no regard for her life. For the past two weeks, Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg has been laying out his case in traditional fashion, invoking all the usual police, legal and medical language.
His star witness is a Glendale church deacon who participated in the last of two rituals to rid the woman of demons. Jin Hyun Choi, who pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, is now on the witness stand. He faces a maximum four-year sentence if the judge finds he testified truthfully.
But the details of the case are so unusual they often seem to defy courtroom convention. Jin Choi, for example, has testified under oath that the demon itself warned the men it would not leave without killing Chung.
When the defense case begins this week, attorneys will try to weave culture, religion and personal histories into the testimony to show the judge what the defendants were thinking during a healing ritual turned deadly.
“What we’re trying to establish is that, based upon their cultural background, this was not such an unreasonable behavior that they were engaged in,” said lawyer Christopher Lee.
Exorcism--practitioners prefer the term “deliverance"--results in at least two deaths a year in South Korea, but prosecutions are almost unheard of there, Chin said.
Experts agree the trial could alter the legal landscape as Western notions of crime, responsibility and punishment are applied to the cultures and beliefs of new immigrants.
“This is a case that pushes the envelope,” said Laurie Levenson, an associate dean at Loyola Law School. “It’s a very interesting case because no matter what culture you come from, killing is usually wrong. These issues don’t come up that often.”
Levenson said the law is well settled on religious freedom as a defense. The government cannot regulate what a person believes, the law holds, but it can regulate actions that result in harm to others.
But, the law seems to allow cultural and religious testimony when it can enlighten a judge or jury on what a defendant might have been thinking at the time he or she killed.
Young-Hoon Lee, a professor at Soon Shin University near Seoul, claims to have exorcised demons, but says he never used violence. In a recent phone interview, he called the death of Kyung Chung “a very unfortunate incident,” but said he was surprised the two ministers were on trial for murder.
“They did not do this on purpose to kill somebody. It just happened during the practices. My personal opinion is, they were mishandling the demon.”
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To the ministers who killed her--and even to the victim--the demons were real. One named ‘Legion’ prevailed, the accused say.
After three years, the demons were back. Once again, dark spirits were making the missionary’s wife arrogant, disobedient to her husband and constantly interfering with his work at their seminary in Bangladesh.
And so, the men of God battled the kwishan--the evil spirits--for her soul.
In their view of this showdown, defense attorneys hope to put forth a broader, richer account of the events than the police and medical examiners. They portray their clients as devout men consumed in a battle that transcends tangible evidence and conventional beliefs.
The Rev. Sung Soo Choi had volunteered as the healer. Five times before, the evangelical missionary had rousted evil spirits from believers. This time, as the woman’s husband shouted the name of Jesus, the healer prayed, sermonized, sang hymns and laid on hands, commanding the demons to leave with all the fervor he could marshal.
For an afternoon and later, well into the next morning, the men took turns pushing against her thighs, abdomen and chest--using their hands, a spoon and their feet in an attempt to squeeze out the devils.
Four, maybe five of them were ousted during an ansu prayer the afternoon of July 3 at a house in Koreatown. But the most powerful and entrenched devil stayed.
Although she was understandably exhausted, the wife was willing to try again. She, more than anyone, wanted the demon expelled.
After a break for church services, the Rev. Choi and the Rev. Jae Whoa Chung, the woman’s husband, mounted a second attack on the powerful spirit.
While the Rev. Choi stood on top of the woman to force the devil up through her mouth, her husband and Jin Choi, a deacon at Glendale Calvary Presbyterian Church, took turns poking it as she pointed to the spots where it lurked.
“There, it’s there,” she told them. “No, you lost it. You’ve got to go back.”
Healer: Is there a spirit? Is there a spirit?
Voice: Yes! Yes!
Healer: What kind of a spirit? Who are you?
Voice: I’m the military.
Healer: When did you get in the body?
Voice: 27 years ago.
Healer: Get out!
Voice: There’s no place to go.
Healer: Get out. To the Pacific Ocean.
Voice: No, but I’ll go into a dog. . . . The dog next door.
The object of their zeal spoke in tongues and frothed at the mouth, oozing mucus and saliva, until finally it seemed that “Gundae,” the military demon known as “Legion,” was near surrender.
“OK, I’m dying. I’m dying,” growled a deep voice from within her. “I’ll get out.”
Seizing upon their enemy’s weakness, the men took turns twisting their heels into the center of the woman’s chest, grinding out Gundae as if the demon were a smoldering cigarette.
Only then--according to defense lawyers James Barnes, Christopher Lee, and Robert Sheahen--did the missionaries realize that her chest was sunken and her breathing had become labored. Gundae had triumphed. It never occurred to any of them that she might die.
“There was not even one time that she complained or screamed out,” Jin Hyun Choi, the deacon, told police. “I guess that’s what it takes to get the demons out.”
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A healing ceremony became a malicious beating at the hands of an ambitious exorcist out to make a name, deputy D.A. contends.
The details of Kyung Jae Chung’s death are cataloged in the “Murder Book,” the 6-inch-thick binder of reports and witness interviews kept by the LAPD.
Thursday, July 4, 01:34 hours, one Jin Hyun Choi summoned an ambulance to Unit 111 at 2122 Century Park Lane, Century City. A woman was having difficulty breathing.
LAPD Patrol Officer Steven Briggs, working the graveyard shift in West Los Angeles, arrived at the condo at 02:05 hours. Was met at the door by the reporting party, an Asian man who spoke excitedly, but Briggs couldn’t understand a word. “I just asked him if he spoke English and he began to speak Oriental,” Briggs recalled.
Inside the bedroom, paramedics tried to revive the victim. Two Asian men sat somberly on a sofa in the living room. They seemed tired.
Scott Paik, a Korean-speaking officer, arrived at 02:30 hours to translate. Briggs had thought the men might have engaged in a “coining,” a Vietnamese folk cure that involves rubbing heated coins on the skin to remedy aches and fevers.
But, the men told Paik, they’d been trying to expel spirits from the woman. It was, he realized, an exorcism.
Victim was transported to Century City Hospital, pronounced dead at 6:30 a.m.
“I was so close to it, getting rid of the thing,” exorcist Sung Soo Choi told Paik. “Maybe I shouldn’t have used the foot.”
Official cause of death determined by an autopsy: multiple blunt force trauma.
Sixteen of the victim’s ribs were fractured. Her heart was crushed against her backbone and one of the major blood vessels was torn. The muscles of her abdominal wall were deeply bruised, as was her pancreas. Sections of her intestinal tract had shut down and showed early signs of gangrene. The muscles of her left thigh were shredded and swollen, releasing enzymes sure to cause kidney failure. The leg injury appeared to be older than the other injuries.
On her abdomen, stretching from hip to hip, were a series of odd, crescent-shaped abrasions. Their source: a large spoon the exorcist used to press on the victim after his own hand began hurting, so vigorous was his poking and prodding. The victim’s left side was purple from knee to hip.
As Deputy Medical Examiner James Ribe observed on the witness stand, such severe bruising and crushing are most often seen in people who have driven into bridge abutments at 35 mph, or been run over by vehicles.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Hank Goldberg alleges the missionaries must have known at some point that their actions could kill Mrs. Chung--especially given her weakened condition after the first exorcism she endured hours earlier. Witnesses said the woman was staggering, needed help dressing and walking, and seemed to be in serious distress as she left the Koreatown house and headed toward the Century City condo for the second rite.
“She’s not going to make it,” a young church member who drove them to the condo remembered thinking.
A possible motive? Choi was an ambitious exorcist who wanted to make the alleged words of a Chinese prophet come true--that he would be jailed, martyred for his work with demons--in time for a big conference of Korean Pentecostals in Chicago. In fact, Choi has told other church members that Goldberg himself is a demon.
“Before that plane containing Mr. and Mrs. Chung ever landed on U.S. soil, he had convinced himself he had to do something outrageous enough to land himself in jail,” Goldberg said during opening statements.
The duration and force of the beating Chung endured clearly signals malice, Goldberg is arguing, whether or not they actually intended for her to die.
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Korean Pentecostal Christians combine ancient shamanism and the laying on of hands.
Known as ansu prayer, derived from ancient Korean shamanism and the charismatic Christian practice of laying on hands, the ritual involves gentle touching, usually an open palm resting lightly against the forehead. A variation, anchal prayer, can result in rough twisting or slapping, particularly if the demonic spirit resists.
All the defendants are Korean Pentecostal Christians, as was the victim. The world’s most rapidly growing religious movement, according to experts, the faith is rooted in 5,000 years of Korean folk practices.
One example of the new religion’s hybrid beliefs and rituals is the appearance of a demon named “Legion,” in both the Chung and Oakland cases. Attorneys involved in both cases agree the reference seems to come from a literal translation of the biblical passage, “And Jesus asked him [Satan], saying, What is thy name? And he said, Legion: because many devils were entered into him.” (Luke 8:30)
Shamanism--belief that spirits can occupy animate and inanimate objects--continues to strongly influence Korean thinking, experts say. A shaman, like a priest, is believed to possess special powers, bestowed by spirits occupying his or her body.