Crime and Punishment: The Eddy Zheng story

‘A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward,” said George R. R. Martin in his book “A Clash of Kings.”

That is particularly apt when you consider the story of Eddy Zheng.

Zheng came to America with his parents and two siblings in 1982. They knew little English when they arrived. In China, Zheng’s father had been a military officer, and his mother an accountant. In America, his father found a job at a fast food restaurant, and his mother as a babysitter. And so they began their lives again after hitting the reset button.

Four years later, Zheng was 16 when he and two friends broke into the house of a family that ran several businesses in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The three young men unleashed a few hours of terror on the couple and their two young children before being caught by the police.

Zheng was tried as an adult and was convicted of 16 felony counts, including kidnap and robbery. He spent the next 19 years incarcerated, and 11 months of those in solitary confinement. He was the youngest prisoner when he started serving time at San Quentin.

While in prison, Zheng learned English, passed his GED and earned an associate’s degree. He participated in crime prevention workshops, reaching out to at-risk immigrant youth. He started the first poetry slam in prison and co-edited an anthology of writings by incarcerated Asian and Pacific Islanders. And he launched a petition for college courses in Asian American studies.

Zheng had started on the long road to redemption.

Immediately after he was released from prison in 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began deportation proceedings against him. Zheng spent the next two years at Yuba County Jail under federal custody. He was finally released from custody in 2007, but his travails were still not quite over.

Zheng continued to face the specter of deportation to China, despite the fact that he had lived most of his life in the United States, albeit incarcerated.

Letters were written on his behalf to ICE authorities attesting to his reformation, yet the deportation order was upheld. With several appeals and community petitions against his deportation, Zheng’s case underwent several dramatic twists and turns.

On Easter Sunday in April 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned 83 people. Eddy Zheng was one of the 83 names on the list. He was 45 years old and finally free and safe. Zheng wrote about his experience in a recent essay:

“I’ve fought for my freedom from incarceration and deportation for 30 years — close to three quarters of my life. For 11 of these years, I lived under the uncertainty of whether I would be able to continue to live in this country, my home since the age of 12. The alternative would be deportation to China, a country I don’t even remember. While recently I cleared the last hurdle to my freedom, the concept of a second chance under federal immigration laws is almost non-existent for noncitizens.”

Zheng’s story continues with all the reformative and rehabilitative efforts he’s undertaken as a Soros Justice Fellow; as a consultant for the Community Youth Center of San Francisco; as a two-time mayoral appointee to the San Francisco Reentry Council; as a Commissioner at the San Francisco Southeast Community Facility Commission; and as a co-chair for the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. He is a well-known and vocal advocate for violence prevention.

A documentary on his life — “Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story” — was screened in San Francisco in March 2016. The film won the Audience Award at CAAMFest 2016.

Redemption and reformation stories like Zheng’s are feel-good narratives. It’s an indication that something is working in our society and within our prison systems and in the way
we provide opportunities for recovery — yes, even to convicted felons.

The immigration law that has held Zheng captive even after serving time for his crime is the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. This law allowed for the deportation of “aliens convicted of crimes.”

As Kemi Bello from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center says, “Eddy’s story really illustrates how these 1996 laws have not just encouraged, but mandated, the disproportionate double punishment of immigrants [legal or undocumented] who come into contact with the criminal justice system.”

In theory, it stands to reason that we don’t want convicted felons to be part of our country. After all, they immigrated with the mandate they would follow our laws and become contributing members of American society. In practice, however, there’s a large gap between laws on paper and the living, breathing people to which they apply.

The profile of 16-year-old Zheng is far different from that of 45-year-old Zheng. The ethics that guide Zheng today have been hard-earned. The crime Zheng committed 30 years ago was terrible and heinous, but his road to redemption is empowering and reflective of a maturing morality.

“In the meantime, I will continue to pay forward until the day I inhale my last breath,” Zheng said in one of his blog posts, while publicly apologizing to the victims of his crime.

Zheng’s redemption does not excuse his crime. But it does, in my opinion, allow him to live among us and serve our society in healthy and constructive ways.

Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, She can be reached at In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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