San Benito County Superior Court Judge Steven Sanders on July 16 sentenced South Korean national Jung Choi, 47, to 11 years in state prison for voluntary manslaughter for her participation in the killing of Hollister resident Yoon “Clara” Ji. She will be credited with time already served in San Benito County Jail. After serving her sentence, Choi will then be deported to South Korea.
Choi and Hollister resident Sang Ji, 51, were arrested on suspicion of killing his wife Yoon in December 2017.
During the July 16 hearing, Sanders asked Deputy District Attorney Joel Buckingham and Choi’s attorney Harry Damkar to state their sentence reports. In pressing for the maximum sentence, Buckingham told Sanders that Yoon Ji had been a “tremendous asset to this community” and that Choi “callously assisted Mr. Ji in transporting the body to her interim resting place until she was recovered.”
In an attempt to reduce her sentence or even secure probation, Damkar said Choi testified that she had “discovered the victim who was already in the process of dying.”
“She does admit she assisted in helping the co-defendant in moving the body,” he said, adding that Choi had expressed “great remorse” and that she had no prior criminal record.
Damkar said Choi came to the U.S. to look at possible colleges for her daughter, and “came into the middle of a family situation that I believe she was totally unprepared for.” He asked Sanders for a mid-term sentence of six years. He reasoned that while Choi’s behavior was “inexcusable,” it was understandable, “because she felt threatened, because Mr. Ji had numerous guns.”
In the end, Sanders imposed the upper term of 11 years.
At first, Ji and Choi were to be tried together, but their trials were separated in April 2019, as Ji asked visiting judge Gilbert T. Brown to approve a 1368 motion to declare himself incompetent to stand trial. Judge Brown granted the request, but Ji was eventually determined to be competent.
Over the course of the case, Ji attempted numerous legal maneuvers to keep from going to trial, including trying to convince Sanders that he did not understand English well enough, even though throughout the proceedings he ignored his Korean interpreters and openly talked with his public defender, Gregory LaForge.
In June 2019, Ji requested a speedy trial. Sanders set the trial for July 22, 2019, as Choi’s attorney Harry Damkar made a motion to have her case dismissed. Sanders denied the motion. The following month, against his attorney’s advice, Ji turned down a plea deal to reduce the first-degree murder charge to voluntary manslaughter. LaForge stepped down from representing Ji and Sanders appointed public defender Arthur Cantu to take over the defense.
Cantu attempted to have the judge dismiss testimony Ji made to San Benito sheriff’s deputies and Damkar argued that anything Ji might say would be detrimental to Choi’s case. Neither argument succeeded, and a trial date was set for March 9. However, on Jan. 24, Choi pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter, and was scheduled to be sentenced March 5. The hearing was later delayed due to COVID-19.
On March 19, the court found Ji guilty of first-degree murder. He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life and will not become eligible for parole until 2042. Even though he was sentenced May 28, he and Choi will remain in custody at the San Benito County Jail for the time being “because the California Department of Corrections is not accepting new inmates due to COVID-19,” Buckingham said.
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