An eight-year legal drama involving a Taiwanese woman accused of killing her husband's mistress and baby ended Friday with a plea bargain that calls for her to be released from jail and deported to her homeland.
Lisa Peng smiled and embraced her attorney after agreeing to plead guilty to two counts of voluntary manslaughter, which came 11 days after a jury deadlocked in her third murder trial. Peng, who enjoyed an affluent lifestyle in Taiwan as the wife of a millionaire businessman, is looking forward to going home and spending time with her two sons, defense attorney John Barnett said.
The case, a tale of wealth, infidelity and revenge, attracted attention on both sides of the Pacific, was covered extensively by the local Chinese-language press and inspired a book and feature film in China.
In agreeing to the deal, prosecutors acknowledged the difficulty they might have winning a conviction of Peng for the 1993 slayings of Jennifer Ji, 25, and Ji's 5-month-old son, Kevin, in a Mission Viejo apartment. Peng's husband was Kevin Ji's father.
"As a trial lawyer, you have to step back and say, 'The jurors have spoken,' " Assistant Dist. Atty. Robert Molko said. "It's a reasonable compromise because of the probability we wouldn't get 12 jurors to agree. And now she's accepted responsibility for what she's done."
Superior Court Judge William R. Froeberg sentenced Peng to 11 years in prison. With credit for good behavior and the seven years she's already spent behind bars, Peng became eligible for immediate parole. She is expected to be transferred to an Immigration and Naturalization Service facility in San Pedro and escorted back to Taipei within a few weeks.
The case captivated people in Taiwan and mainland China as well as emigrants from those countries in the United States, largely because of its soap-opera story line. The case also touched a chord with Taiwanese women who have long complained about their husbands having mistresses on business trips to mainland China and the United States.
"This was like the O.J. Simpson case for the Chinese community," said Charles Ding, a reporter for Sing Tao, one of several Chinese-language papers that covered the case. "Two people were killed, there were prominent people involved and now the result is almost the same: The suspect will go free."
Peng's decision to plead guilty marks the first time she has admitted culpability in the case, which led to two hung juries and a conviction that was thrown out on appeal. When she was convicted at her second trial, Peng loudly proclaimed her innocence from the defense table.
Peng agreed to the plea bargain after weighing the risks of a fourth trial, Barnett said.
"Any time you go to trial, there's a possibility of losing," he said. "She knows that, having lost and been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. She's missed her sons terribly."
An appeals court dismissed Peng's conviction in 1999, criticizing sheriff's deputies for a lengthy interrogation in which Peng asked for a lawyer and for recording a conversation between Peng and her husband during which Peng admitted she was at the murder scene.
Peng attracted sympathy from many Taiwanese women, including some who showed up at an early court hearing carrying placards expressing their support. On Friday, one of those supporters brought yellow roses she planned to deliver to Peng upon her release.
"Personally, I feel she's one of the victims," said Jolene Kuo, a Taiwanese emigrant now living in Rowland Heights and a frequent jailhouse visitor of Peng's. "I don't believe she did it. But this is what she always wanted, to go home."
Not everyone in court was there to support Peng. A juror who voted to convict Peng in her third trial sat in the back row during Friday's hearing and said she was disappointed.
"Some people want to see it in black and white. I'm not happy," said the juror, who declined to give her name. "I'd love to see 12 people agree and find her guilty."
Molko said his case in the third trial was severely weakened because the appeals court prohibited him from introducing Peng's recorded statements to her husband as evidence. Peng told her husband she was in the apartment when Ji died but insisted Ji had fallen on the knife. She did not explain the victim's 18 stab wounds.
Jurors who voted to acquit Peng in the last trial cited a lack of evidence directly linking her to the crime. While it was clear Peng bit the victim, Barnett argued that the bite could have happened days before the murder.
"With the state of the evidence, as hard personally as it may be, it's the right thing," Molko said of the plea bargain.
Ji's sister and father, who traveled from China to attend all three trials, were back home Friday and not available for comment. Their $2-million wrongful-death lawsuit against Peng is pending.