Edmund Ko Trial: 2000
Edmund Ko Trial: 2000
Defendant: Edmund Ko
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Jack Litman
Chief Prosecutors: Ann Prunty, Lisa Friel
Judge: Harold B. Beeler
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: May 31-July 27, 2000
Sentence: 25 years to life
SIGNIFICANCE: The right to silence is enshrined in the American constitution. Here, two individuals availed themselves of this right, with drastically different outcomes.
When Edmund Ko split up with his girlfriend Hyesung Lynda Hong in 1997, the break was amicable, good-natured even. The three-year romance that had blossomed in their graduate days at Cornell University had run its course, and it was now time to move on. For Ko this meant a slot on the executive training program at Macy's department store, valuable preparation for when he took over his family's multimillion-dollar leather goods business in Korea; while Hong pursued her career dreams at Columbia Law School.
Hong was an excellent student with a big future, but it never came to pass. On March 20, 1998, a close friend, baffled by Hong's unusual telephone silence, called at her Morningside Heights apartment. Unable to get an answer he picked the lock. What he found inside the blood-spattered apartment was the stuff of slasher movies.
Within 24 hours Ko was arrested and later charged with murder.
When the trial finally came to court on May 31, 2000, Assistant District Attorney Ann Prunry painted a lurid picture of Hong's death. "Her body was cold, stiff and hard; dried blood marked her bed, her carpet, her clothes … [Ko] carried out a cold-blooded and premeditated murder by slitting her throat from one side to the other."
If that were not enough, over strident defense objections, Prunty then played a harrowing police video of the crime scene that showed Hong, lying face down on the floor of her apartment, amidst blood-drenched textbooks and papers. "The crime scene alone will prove to you that Edmund Ko killed her," said Prunty.
In reply, chief defense lawyer Jack Litman urged the jury to "scrutinize this case … [because] we believe the wrong person has been arrested." The real killer, according to Litman, was Ko's "pathologically" jealous current girlfriend, Claudia Seong, a 33-year-old aspiring fashion designer. "Claudia Seong was making all the rules," said Litman. "She wanted Lynda Hong dead. When she learned that Hong had called her a prostitute, she sought revenge."
Litman alleged Seong had ordered a henchman, Jae Young Shin, to murder Hong. Certainly, Shin had been untruthful when questioned by police officers shortly after the murder, and then, when the investigation became more heated, he had fled to his native Korea in November 1998.
While Prunty didn't dispute Seong's hold over Ko, she poured cold water on defense claims that he was merely an innocent pawn of this scheming, older woman. At the time of his arrest, Ko had already been bailed out of jail for his part in yet another sadistic attack on an ex-girlfriend. Diane Kim told the court how, just months before Hong's murder, she had herself been held down by Ko and Seong's sister, while Seong, in a jealous frenzy, slashed her across the face, legs and head.
Poignant testimony came from Hong's best friend, Se Ok, who described talking on the phone to Hong just minutes before her alleged time of death, only for Hong to abruptly terminate the call by saying, "It's Ed [at the door] I have to go."
Litman said Ko didn't deny being at Hong's apartment that night, but "he didn't kill her. He spoke to her. He left in about half-an-hour."
When they had first charged Ko, the district attorney's office had trumpeted the fact that a bloodstained knife had been found at his parents' home. Now Prunty revealed an abrupt change of prosecutorial heart, saying, "We will nor be offering [into evidence] the knives recovered from his parents' apartment," admitting that no murder weapon had been found.
The reason for this U-turn became clear when Nagy Bekhit, a fingerprint expert, testified. He admitted that he might have accidentally contaminated the knife with blood from other evidence samples. Asked by Prunty if he could have used the same brush on the knives that he had used to dust the bloodied papers, Bekhit said, "Maybe." The witness explained that he did not always clean or change brushes after using them to dust an item for fingerprints.
"Could you have transferred dried blood from one item to another?" Prunty asked.
"It's a possibility," Bekhit admitted.
All of which was meat and drink to Litman, who seized upon Bekhit's admission as further evidence that Ko had been the victim of a conspiracy, in which the police and the FBI had planted blood and hair evidence to bolster their flabby case.
Litman had far less success explaining away a bloodstained black sweatshirt found next to Hong's body. It was identified as belonging to Ko.
Ordinarily the high-point of a major trial comes when the defendant takes the stand, but on this occasion Ko chose to exercise his right to silence, leaving Claudia Seong to take center stage: except that the jury never got to hear what she said—or rather didn't say. In the early days of the investigation, Seong had cooperated with police, claiming that Ko had confessed the murder to her, even brandishing Hong's wallet as a crime scene trophy. But when a grand jury began investigating her own involvement—if any—in the death of Lynda Hong, Seong had suddenly clammed up.
Anxious to safeguard Seong's interests in light of any subsequent charges, Judge Harold Beeler ruled she could only be questioned out of the jury's hearing. Litman was furious. Beeler rejected his pleas to have jurors present, saying Seong's already well-reported reticence would not help jurors to decide the current case and could "create the impression" that Seong was guilty of the crime.
Diminutive and dressed in black, Seong proved to be as difficult as anticipated, parrying everything counsel threw at her.
"Did you falsely incriminate Edmund Ko to the police to shift the blame away from yourself in the murder of Lynda Hong?" demanded Litman.
In a whisper, Seong replied, "I take the Fifth Amendment," invoking her right against self-incrimination. When Litman accused her of having conspired with Jae Young Shin to murder Hong, she again took the Fifth; and again when Litman pushed her on allegations that she had become "enraged at Lynda Hong" for calling Seong "a prostitute."
Prunty fared no better. She wanted to know about Ko's alleged confession, and whether Seong was living with Ko and intending to marry him at the time of the killing. Again and again Seong fell back on the protection of the Fifth Amendment. It was a ploy she used no fewer than 37 times before stepping down from the stand.
What bearing Seong's testimony might have had on the trial's outcome had the jury been present is unknowable: what is certain is that on July 27 they convicted Ko of second-degree murder.
On October 16, 2000, following an emotion-packed hearing at which the deceased's relatives hurled invective at Ko, Judge Beeler said he was imposing the maximum sentence because the murder was a display of "great heinousness and depravity … This young woman was a remarkable person for many, many people … a shining light … He extinguished her life without any reason."
Ko received a prison term of 25 years to life.
Suggestions for Further Reading
New York Times. See Hong, Hyesung Lynda, in the New York Times Index (June I-July 28, 2000).
Senior, Jennifer. New York Magazine (June 1, 1998).