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Excerpted From: Rhoda J. Yen, Racial Stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans and its Effect on Criminal Justice: A Reflection on the Wayne Lo Case, 7 Asian Law Journal 1 (December 2000) (165 Footnotes) (Full Document)

WayneLoOn December 14, 1992, 19-year-old Wayne Lo stormed the campus of Simon's Rock College of Bard, an elite private institution for gifted students, and began a twenty-minute shooting spree that left two people dead and four wounded. In the past seven years, I have followed the news coverage of the Wayne Lo case with increasing interest, not only because Wayne and I are both Chinese American, born in the same year, and raised under similar circumstances, but because the degrees of separation have unwittingly decreased between us. My husband Dan was Wayne's childhood friend, one who slept over at his house and shared adolescent confessions about girls, sex, and religion. Wayne's mother and father are longtime friends of my in-laws and serve as Dan's godparents. Our families have exchanged letters and photographs over the years and managed to pretend that while we graduated from college, married, and landed our first jobs, a young man in a Massachusetts prison did not exist.

Early in law school, I began to think about Wayne more frequently. I prodded Dan for details about the young killer, hoping to discover any clues to Wayne's perplexing identity. Slowly, I arrived at a theory, not about why he killed that chilly day in December, but about how his race may have influenced his conviction and the denial of his appeal.

In this paper, I will examine the racial imagery surrounding Wayne Lo's trial as an example of how stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans influence the criminal justice system. In Part I, I offer two prevailing categories of stereotypes, the “model minority” and “yellow peril,” and highlight their criticisms. In Part II, I discuss how these stereotypes potentially influence legal actors in cases involving both Asian American victims and defendants. Finally, in Part III, I return to the Wayne Lo case and propose and explanation of how racial stereotyping may have colored

[. . .]

The influence of racial stereotyping of Asian Americans on the criminal justice system illustrates the unavoidable fact that law is not detached from social perceptions. Both jurors and law enforcement officers are affected by the model minority and yellow peril stereotypes in cases involving Asian Americans. Although the eyes of the law promise symbolically to be blind, they are in reality clouded by the misunderstandings and biases of the human actors who carry out the law.

In returning to Wayne Lo's case, I offer that the model minority and yellow peril stereotypes may have influenced the jury's perception of Wayne's blameworthiness. In doing so, I do not mean in any way to excuse the wrongfulness of Wayne's actions or to depreciate the suffering of his victims' families. However, I do argue that racial bias may have caused jurors to fail to accord proper weight to the reasonableness of an insanity defense.

News accounts about Wayne depicted him as the epitome of a model minority, one who distinctly did not fit the expected profile for a murderer. Often juxtaposed with the descriptions of his mystifying actions on the day of the murders and during his trial were anecdotes about his model upbringing. Many journalists focused on the success of his immigrant parents in building an award-winning Chinese restaurant from the ground up, on Wayne's incredible musical talent and stellar grades which landed him into a prestigious college for young prodigies, and on the thoughtfully written essay that he had penned only hours before the killings. Journalists reported Wayne as being a “very bright student and a talented musician” with “exceedingly good manners and gentlemanly upbringing.” Wayne was also labeled as a “quiet violinist” and “dutiful son.” Another journalist wrote: “From the moment [Wayne] arrived in America he showed great promise.”

Several journalists devoted attention to the successes of Wayne's parents. Wayne's father had been an officer in Taiwan's Air Force and his mother a music teacher in Taipei. The journalists also included a statement from a family friend commending Wayne's parents as “very, very good. They are model parents.” Some reporters included a statement from Wayne's father boasting of the success of his two sons: “'[Wayne] used to be the best in my country. My family is a very straight family. I want them to have straight A's. If they practice music, they have to be perfect. That is why they are so good.”’ A journalist at the Boston Globe reported on Wayne's “exceptional intelligence” that propelled him far beyond the confines of a traditional high school curriculum. Others noted that Wayne's musical virtuosity was discovered by a renowned conductor when he was only seven years old, and he soon became the youngest person to play with a local youth orchestra.

Wayne so epitomized the model minority stereotype that the media characterized him as completely assimilated to the white American community. This had at least two effects on Wayne's trial. First, little effort was made to ensure that the jury, chosen from a predominantly white, rural population, would be racially balanced. Although Judge Daniel A. Ford moved Wayne's trial from Berkshire County into Hampden Superior Court in Springfield, Massachusetts, Ford was more concerned that Berkshire residents had already been inundated with the media frenzy surrounding the killings than with the possibility of racial prejudice. Not surprisingly, none of the jurors chosen were of Asian descent. Similarly, on Wayne's appeal, his defense lawyers focused more on the potential bias of a gay psychologist on the allegedly homophobic defendant than on racial prejudice by any of the legal actors in the trial. Wayne's race became a non-issue in both the trial and appeal. As an ideal candidate for the model minority stereotype, Wayne was treated just as if he had been white.

Second, the model minority stereotype may have influenced jurors in rejecting Wayne's insanity defense. In order to prove legal insanity, Wayne was required to show that he suffered from a mental disease or defect that impaired his ability to know right from wrong or to control his unlawful conduct. However, if an Asian American is depicted as a model citizen, jurors would be hard-pressed to conclude that at the same time, he could be mentally impaired. After all, mental illness is not often associated with individuals from hardworking and decent families who prove themselves to be scholarly, talented, and successful. Accordingly, while experts for Wayne's defense testified that he suffered from schizophrenia, the prosecution sought to show that he instead suffered from a “narcissistic personality disorder” that gave him an “overinflated image of his own importance.” Such a characterization belies the fear of Asian superiority inherent in the model minority stereotype. Essentially, the prosecution sought to show that because Wayne had excelled beyond most people of his age, he must have harbored the belief that he was better than his white victims.

Thus, the model minority stereotype may have colored jurors' view of Wayne as being more emotionally stable than he actually was. Several facts that suggest Wayne was internally unbalanced may have, in fact, gone unnoticed by jurors. Although Wayne initially told his father that he had been instructed by God to purge the campus of evil and described the contemplated crime with apparent clarity, on a different occasion, he appeared confused and told jail officials that he thought he was on a vacation and would be flying home to Montana soon. Although the prosecution argued that Wayne believed God had commanded him to cleanse the campus of sin, Wayne was apparently also influenced by a secular punk band, Sick of it All, whose t-shirt he brazenly wore at his arraignment. Moreover, Wayne evidently failed to understand the message of Sick of It All's music, which presumably denounces racism and violence. Similarly, none of the news accounts of the shootings discussed the unsettling inconsistency between the fact that Wayne held neo-Nazi views and that he himself was not white.

Third, the yellow peril stereotype may also have made it more difficult for the jury to relate to Wayne. Although potential jurors were questioned about their attitudes towards Asians, the dearth of Asians and Asian Americans in Springfield, Massachusetts suggests that few had real-life experience on which to form their opinions. Thus, Wayne may have appeared more threatening to white jurors whose prestigious college had been invaded by a foreigner. In addition, jurors may have been influenced by the prosecution's characterization of Wayne as a madman bent on murder, allowing their fears and prejudices about Asian criminality to weigh against the defense's evidence of insanity.

In particular, despite the fact that there was no evidence to show that the shootings were not random, jurors apparently believed the prosecution's characterization that Wayne was a crazed and dangerous bigot who intended to cleanse the campus of African Americans, homosexuals, and drug addicts. For example, there was evidence that Wayne espoused racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and neo-Nazi sentiments on campus. The media also offered anecdotal evidence that Wayne had allegedly threatened an interracial couple, argued in an academic paper for secretly deporting and exterminating individuals with AIDS, written obscene graffiti in the snow which demeaned handicapped persons, shaved his head, listened to punk rock music, dressed in an extreme fashion, and followed Rush Limbaugh's radio program. One journalist described Wayne as a withdrawn and angry skinhead and quoted classmates as stating that he was an “extreme bigot,” “scary,” and “anti-everything.”

However, there was no mention that, despite Wayne's alleged hatred against blacks, Jews, and homosexuals, none of Wayne's victims fit any of these descriptions. Moreover, contrary evidence showing Wayne's lack of bigotry may have been overlooked. An African American student said that Wayne never directed any racist remarks to her, and a Jewish teacher who knew Wayne personally admitted that he had in fact been polite to her. The fact that Wayne had a gay friend at the college never came out at the trial. Other classmates conceded that although Wayne's views were unpleasant, he was regarded as having superficially adopted the “breakfast-cereal fascism” views of his friends and was merely “another tough guy who was all talk.” In addition, Wayne himself, who entered Simon's Rock on a W.E.B. Dubois scholarship for minority students, wrote an essay during his freshman year discussing his feelings of isolation as a minority in rural Montana, where he was the only Asian American among 340 students in his high school. At Simon's Rock, Wayne was only one of two students of Asian descent. At the trial and in the media, Wayne's race was not only ignored such that he was equated with being a white, neo-Nazi, but he was simultaneously characterized as being a despicable outsider to be feared.

Facts showing Wayne's internal inconsistencies would have challenged the prosecution's characterization of the killings as a premeditated racist/homophobic murder spree, making the alternative view that Wayne was in fact insane more credible. The media and prosecution instead presented a carefully constructed portrait of Wayne as a brilliant and deliberative killer. Accordingly, prosecutors argued that Wayne intentionally used Biblical imagery after the killings to lead people to believe he was crazy. The district attorney claimed that Wayne deliberately warned a professor of his murderous intentions by including on his final exam paraphrased verses from the biblical Book of Revelation: “'Anyone adding to this book, God will add to him the plagues mentioned here. Anyone taking away from this book, God will take away his tree of life. Amen. God be with you.”’ The prosecution sought to admit illegally seized evidence from Wayne's dormitory room suggesting that Wayne had carefully planned the shootings. The barred evidence included a drawing of a man firing an assault rifle and a note with the word “redrum” written repeatedly. Journalists also reported that Wayne, who rarely smiled at anyone, sat grinning to himself in the cafeteria on the evening of the shootings. Although the journalists suggested that Wayne's apparently positive mood revealed his murderous intentions, they failed to offer any equally credible explanations. Wayne may have simply felt excited to have finished his final exams and to be returning home for Christmas vacation.

On the other hand, the findings of clinical psychologists who examined Wayne strongly suggested that Wayne, in fact, suffered from a classic case of paranoid schizophrenia. Wayne had told David Smith, a psychologist from the Berkshire County House of Correction, that he had received commands related to the Book of Revelation. Another psychologist who examined Wayne testified that Wayne believed that because the Book of Revelation had been written to the churches of Asia and he was an Asian, the book had been written especially to him. Furthermore, Wayne had perceived “voices” instructing him to purchase a gun and perform the rampage. The voices told him to keep his mission secret and on the evening of the shootings, pronounced: “'It is time.”’ Based on the numerical data, Wayne's psychological tests all pointed to insanity. In addition, various witnesses testified to Wayne's history of emotional instability, namely, bouts of suicidal depression. Wayne had also suffered physical beatings by his father and had apparently developed a warped belief that the beatings somehow purified him of his transgressions.

Moreover, there was sufficient evidence to show that Wayne did not appreciate the consequences of his actions. On the day before the shootings, Wayne had spoken with his best friend from Montana and appeared jovial, making plans together for the upcoming Christmas vacation. His testimony demonstrated that Wayne did not appreciate the criminality or potential consequences of his actions. In addition, clinical psychologist Eric Plakun, who spent eight hours examining Wayne, testified that Wayne had not understood the wrongfulness of the shootings. Rather, Wayne told Dr. Plakun that he had been excited to have fulfilled his spiritual mission and that it had been “'quite a night. It was a climax.”’

None of this evidence swayed the appellate court, which concluded that Wayne did not meet the legal definition of insanity. Despite abundant evidence to support Wayne's insanity defense, the jury and appellate judge instead agreed with the prosecution's characterization of Wayne as a deliberative killer who outsmarted his teachers and fellow students by pretending to be insane.

However, I know that I am not alone in believing that Wayne was, in fact, insane. After careful and honest consideration of the available evidence, the father of one of Wayne's victims has since concluded that Wayne was insane at the time of the shootings. But I also know that given the fact that Wayne has run out of legal avenues to pursue, my speculations regarding his case will likely never bear a stamp of approval by any legal authority. I am continually aware that my conviction that Wayne and other Asians and Asian Americans are still affected by racial prejudices in the criminal justice system is, more often than not, poorly received. Most of my colleagues, both Asian and non-Asian, to whom I have mentioned this article have expressed doubt that Asian Americans are affected by racial biases anymore, particularly in the legal system. But as Wayne serves out a life sentence he probably would not have received had he been white, I can only hope that we will consider the possibility in this new century that racial stereotyping against Asian Americans remains an ever-present force in the criminal justice system.

J.D. 1999, Georgetown University Law Center. Jones, Foster, Johnston & Stubbs, P.A. (Florida), June 1999 to present.

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