In a sudden twist of events, Sang Ji, accused of killing his wife Yoon “Clara” Ji in December 2017, turned down a plea deal to reduce the first-degree murder charge against him to voluntary manslaughter in San Benito County Superior Court on July 12. The action prompted his defense attorney, Gregory LaForge, to quit. Judge Steven Sanders appointed public defender Arthur Cantu to take over the defense.
District Attorney Candice Hooper told Sanders at the hearing that Ji had been told if he provided enough proof that Yoon Ji was killed during a heated argument, the charge would be reduced to voluntary manslaughter. She said Ji had not yet provided the proof and LaForge said when he took the offer to Ji on July 8 he rejected it.
When Sanders started to say there was still a trial set for July 22, LaForge said, “I’m not going to be able to do the trial, your honor, based on our discussion in chambers.”
LaForge told BenitoLink that he couldn’t work with Ji because Ji wouldn’t listen to his counsel. He said Ji made the decision to waive time and proceed with a speedy trial without discussing it with him first. When Ji turned down the plea against advice, LaForge told him he would face life in prison rather than five-and-a-half years for voluntary manslaughter.
A life sentence, however, may not be in the cards because, according to statements made by San Benito County Sheriff Capt. Eric Taylor during a civil trial, Ji agreed to show authorities where Yoon Ji’s body was buried only after the district attorney withdrew life in prison as a possible penalty.
After Sanders granted Cantu a few minutes to confer with his new client outside the courtroom, Ji’s co-defendant Jung Choi, a South Korean national, entered the chambers. Her attorney Harry Damkar attempted to get the charges against her dismissed.
Damkar reviewed the evidence that had been presented at earlier hearings—none of which, he insisted, implicated Choi in the killing. He conceded there was enough evidence that she was an accessory after the fact and she may have committed other crimes, such as fraud when she was allegedly caught on Safeway surveillance cameras using Yoon Ji’s credit card after the alleged murder.
But Damkar said there was no actual physical evidence implicating Choi in the murder. He said it was only Ji’s statement made to Taylor that connected Choi to the crime.
During a civil trial, Taylor testified that Ji claimed he was arguing with his wife when Choi came up from behind and bludgeoned her with a baseball bat. He claimed he was too stunned to react and watched Choi continue to beat his wife. This version of the killing apparently contradicts what Ji told the District Attorney’s Office in consideration for a reduced charge.
After Hooper and Damkar presented points and counterpoints regarding the evidence, Sanders denied the motion to dismiss charges against Choi.
Because a new defense attorney would need to study a voluminous amount of evidence in the Ji case, and because Damkar said he would be presenting a motion to sever Choi’s trial from Ji’s, Sanders vacated the trials that had been set for July 22. He set the next hearing for July 31, and mentioned a possible trial date in early October. Each defendant remains in custody on a $2.1 million bond.
Ji and Choi were arrested in December 2017, after one of Ji’s daughters reported her mother missing. According to a report by the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office, the daughters were suspicious of Ji’s claim that his wife had returned to South Korea. One daughter became increasingly concerned after relatives in South Korea told her Yoon had not returned. Ji eventually led investigators to Yoon’s body buried in a shallow grave later that month.
Other related BenitoLink articles: