News/US: Smuggling case goes to jury

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Subject: News/US: Smuggling case goes to jury
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Fri Dec 10 1999 - 11:53:37 EST

Although this case focus' on smuggling, it raises some interesting issues.



Smuggling case goes to jury
Trial of three men charged with helping smuggle 132 Chinese aliens into
Savannah ends after second day of testimony.
By John Zebrowski
Savannah Morning News, December 8, 1999

At what point can it be determined that someone being smuggled is also a
smuggler? Can a farmer who said his 11-member family lives off $30 a year
be part of an international conspiracy that, had it been successful, would
have netted nearly $6 million? Should the act of cooking meals for 132 men
land a man in prison for up to 25 years?

Just three questions, but in their answers, the 12 jurors of the Prince
Nicolas smuggling case may find the key to the guilt or innocence of three
men. While Zheng Xiao, Li Guo Guan and Zheng Huan Jian may be charged with
technical charges of conspiracy, aiding and abetting, and smuggling,
attorneys Tuesday in U.S. District Court seemed to be asking more basic

As the case moved toward a conclusion, with both sides resting, the jury
was presented two stories to choose between. Are the defendants desperately
poor men who performed menial chores to help get them to the American
Promised Land? Or enforcers, feared by the other aliens and the crew if
they didn't follow along with the smuggling operation?

The prosecution rested its case Tuesday morning after calling to the stand
an agent for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and three of the
132 illegal aliens found in the hull of the Prince Nicolas in Savannah on
Aug. 12. The point of their testimony, assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey
Buerstatte said in his closing argument, was to prove that the defendants
were leaders of the aliens, that their actions helped the smuggling
conspiracy move forward.

The government contends that Li modified the hatches leading to the ship's
forepeak, concealing the aliens' hiding place from police. The two Zhengs
cooked food for the aliens, an activity the defense said was a menial task
in no way illegal.

Even preparing food, Buerstatte said, proved the defendants' role in the

"The smuggling operation would not be very successful if the aliens arrive
in this country and then be sick," he said. "Providing food and medicine
that was needed is part of the enterprise."

The three defendants were also allowed to sleep and eat in the crew
quarters. While the government said it showed a pattern of special
treatment signifying their membership among the smugglers, the defense
contended it was nothing special.

Attorneys for all three defendants stressed during final arguments that the
perks or the tasks they performed were done by many of the aliens. Crew
members testified several other aliens ate in the crew quarters. Others,
the defense said, helped chip rust, carry wood and clean up.

"There are a lot of people in this case who did the exact same thing as my
client is alleged to have done and they're not here," said Li's attorney
Scot Kraeuter.

In their defense, the three defendants were the only witnesses, saying they
played no role in any conspiracy. Rather, they spoke of their poverty and
their desperation to reach America. On the streets of the Chinese province
all three men came from, America is called the Golden Mountain.

The contrast between life here and in China is stark. Li and Zheng Huan
Jian received only three years of formal schooling. Even in a country where
the per capita income is not much more than $2,000, they were poor.

For a break in their fee, the men took on some added responsibilities, the
defendants' attorneys said.

"The American Dream might sound like something cliched," said Zheng Huan
Jian's attorney Elizabeth White. "But that was his dream. To come here, get
a job and work hard."

For the jury, the question of guilt or innocence may just come down to
whether the ship's hijacking ever took place. On June 6, the day the aliens
boarded the Prince Nicolas, INS agents, crew members and the captain
testified that the two Zhengs helped the captain stage an event on the
bridge in which the pair threatened the captain's life if he didn't sail
the ship.

Buerstatte argued this shows the defendants' involvement in the whole
conspiracy: A couple of cooks do not hold a knife and a hammer to a
captain's head.

But the defense said the whole thing never happened, that Zhang lied to get
a lighter sentence, and the crew members went along to keep out of trouble.
In their view, the conspiracy was engineered by the government.

Whichever story the jury believes, a verdict brings this phase of the trial
to a close. But neither side contends the conspiracy ends with these three

In testimony Monday, the captain said he was told by two representatives of
the company that arranged the journey to expect some extra passengers. And
ever since the case broke in August, the now-retired Atlanta director for
the Immigration and Naturalization Service has said he suspects foreign
government officials and criminals around the globe were involved.

Even if it ends today, this case is probably not over yet.

"It was ongoing by someone we don't even know, by someone who is not in
this courtroom, who is in China," Buerstatte told the jury. "I submit to
you, this investigation is not over."

Melanie Orhant

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