Centreville's Jong Duk Choi, 19, received probation and a stiff fine Friday in connection with the brutal, baseball-bat bludgeoning of Fairfax’s Sea-Hwan "Sean" Chang, who died of his injuries.
Chang, 20, was approached by a group of men, March 3, in the 4700 block of Commons Drive in Annandale, and was beaten on the head with a metal baseball bat. He lay in a coma for three weeks and died March 28 at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Before Choi's sentencing in Fairfax County Circuit Court, his attorney David Hall said that, except for this incident, his client had never been in trouble and had lived a "remarkable" life.
"He came here as an immigrant from Korea, dropped out of school but realized he couldn't go far without an education, so he got a GED," said Hall. "He learned computers and worked as a computer professional at two jobs, many hours a week."
However, added Hall, "That doesn't excuse his being there with that group. It's a tragic situation, all the way around."
Chang and some of those in the group had fought with each other, the night before the assault — and Chang won — so his attackers tracked down his car the next evening to vandalize it in retaliation. But when Chang came outside and saw the men near his vehicle, they quickly turned their attention from the car to him and another fight ensued.
But this time, Chang lost. Not only was he struck with a bat but, after he fell to the ground, four or five of his assailants closed in and kicked and hit him further. After his death, Fairfax County police charged Donnie Sunbo Shim, 19, of Centreville, with first-degree murder.
But after a two-day trial in Circuit Court, the jury was unable to determine for sure whether it was Shim's blow that killed Chang. So on Aug. 29 it found him guilty instead of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and recommended that he serve 24 months in prison. Shim returned to court Oct. 18 and, at that time, Judge Dennis Smith imposed the jury's sentence.
Meanwhile, Choi, of 14508 North Barros Court, also came under police scrutiny. After determining that he, too, was one of Chang's assailants and was involved in the young man's death, police arrested Choi on June 1 and charged him with assault by mob, a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of a year in jail.
He pleaded guilty, Nov. 7, in Circuit Court to a reduced charge of simple assault (which carries the same penalty as the other charge). Choi then returned to court Friday before Judge Terrence Ney for sentencing.
"There's no evidence that he knew Shim had a baseball bat or was going to use it," argued Hall. "[And] there's no evidence that Choi struck the victim while he was down." But, countered Ney, "Choi did, in fact, strike Chang during that incident."
Actually, said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Katie Swart, "The commonwealth was generous with [Choi]. The defendant has benefited by having a misdemeanor in this case. Three others were convicted of felonies."
The most serious of those, aside from Shim, was Chong Yi's conviction for manslaughter. He struck Chang with a metal pipe, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Contradicting Hall, Swart said Choi did participate with the others in Chang's beating and "there was evidence that they knew Shim had a bat. They were going to hit his car. [Choi] is the least culpable, but there's no reason to give him less than 364 days — the maximum sentence possible."
If he were sentenced to a full year — 365 days — Choi could possibly have faced deportation. By Friday, he had already served all but 90-some days of that time. Instead of jail, Hall suggested that the judge sentence Choi to a particular program designed to prevent criminals from repeating their offenses in the future.
"He hasn't had a lot of parental supervision throughout his young life, so put him on supervised probation for two years so he can complete the recidivist-prevention program — which would provide him with this supervision," said Hall. "This [crime] was a perfect illustration of the bad decisions young men make when left alone."
Choi then stood and apologized to the victim's family before the judge pronounced sentence. Calling Chang's death a "violent tragedy," Ney said he was "reluctant to have Mr. Choi serve 90 days and be out on his own."
The judge instead sentenced him to 364 days, suspended all that time and placed Choi on two years supervised probation during which he would "complete the recidivist program or a like program." Ney also fined Choi $2,500, payable in six months.
Afterward, Hall said the sentence was a "fair outcome" because it "would give the court two years supervision over [Choi]."