From Chico State to Chinese prison

Former student Kelsey Mudd will spend the next four years behind bars, but he doesn’t know if he committed a crime

Kelsey Mudd gazes out a window in Hong Kong shortly after being released on bail in early 2010.

Kelsey Mudd gazes out a window in Hong Kong shortly after being released on bail in early 2010.

photo COURTESY OF Michael mudd

While most Chico State students were putting the finishing touches on their Halloween costumes last Thursday (Oct. 28), Kelsey Lord Michael Mudd was being sentenced to more than four years in a Hong Kong prison for manslaughter.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Kelsey’s father, Michael Mudd, an Australian businessman who has lived in Hong Kong for 32 years.

The conviction came as a surprise to Kelsey’s family and defense team, who spent more than a year trying to piece together what happened and compiling a strong case they hoped would prove the now-23-year-old’s innocence.

Kelsey, who lived in Hong Kong until age 9 and has dual Australian and U.S. citizenship, was charged with murder in June 2009 after he allegedly took control of a taxi after a night of drinking and caused an accident that resulted in the death of the cab driver. According to foreign media reports, the taxi driver was hanging out of the car but tethered to it by his seatbelt.

Exactly what happened is still unknown. Kelsey, a former Chico State student, was staying with his father in Hong Kong over the summer while doing charity work. On that particular evening, the father-and-son duo had been enjoying live music at a local bar. Michael checked in with Kelsey before leaving around midnight.

“Kelsey was in good spirits. I left him with a good friend of mine and another American. He was buzzed, but he was absolutely not falling over drunk or anything like that,” Michael said.

Kelsey had plans to take the 2 a.m. bus to his dad’s apartment, 20 minutes away.

“The next thing I heard was a call in the morning saying he was in the accident, he was in a hospital,” Michael said. “I got there and I saw all the cops, and [Kelsey’s] in pain, and I asked what happened. He said, ‘I don’t know, Dad. They said I drove the taxi.’ ”

On a nearby television, Chinese media were flashing Kelsey’s photo and a video of him in the middle of a front seat of a cab, face bloodied and eyes glazed. The video, captured by a Chinese news team, begins with paramedics treating Kelsey after the accident and just before the cab speeds forward at 15 mph, crosses a median, and strikes three other taxis.

In the same hospital, the 58-year-old Chinese driver who had been transporting Kelsey before the accident was dying from his injuries.

“At that point, I had no idea if my son had anything to do with this at all,” Michael said. “And subsequent investigations did not reveal anything. In fact, it got worse.”

The initial murder charge was later reduced to manslaughter. Understanding how the trial panned out requires background on Hong Kong’s judicial system, Michael said.

Hong Kong reverted from British rule to Chinese rule in 1997 but continued to use a common-law system similar to England’s. Since that time, however, the conviction rate in the courts has been on the rise.

Maintaining Commonwealth law meant court cases would be conducted in English. Because Kelsey faced a manslaughter charge (plus two additional charges of drinking and dangerous driving, and one charge of taking a vehicle without permission), he faced a jury trial in Hong Kong’s High Court.

However, members of the seven-person jury were not required to understand English, Michael said. Moreover, the prosecution was allowed to interview its witnesses (who were all Chinese) in Chinese. This put the defense at a disadvantage.

“All the people that were doing accusations in the first part, which is the majority of the trial, were speaking Chinese to the jury, who understood fully,” said Michael, who sat through the 14-day trial. “But then it moved to expert witnesses in English. I could see it was a time where [the jury was] glazing. They didn’t understand.”

Through expert testimony the defense challenged the accusation that Kelsey had taken control of the vehicle. They brought forth evidence that the Toyota model in question could accelerate on its own, and also posed the possibility that Kelsey was drugged or the victim of a botched robbery (his blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit, according to foreign media reports).

The defense further pointed to the incomplete forensics report conducted by Chinese officials (the car’s gear shift was never tested for DNA, for example), as well as the fact that the driver never mentioned a foreign passenger while he lay conscious in the hours leading up to his death.

“This case has more holes than the Titanic,” Michael said before he referenced a slew of other inconsistencies in the case.

Michael said his son never took the stand, because he did not remember the night’s events.

Today, Kelsey is sitting in jail. He will be placed in one of two prisons in the area that have English books and serve Western meals. His defense team is planning to appeal the manslaughter charge. Michael hopes his son will be released no later than Dec. 2, 2013—11 days before Kelsey’s 27th birthday.

“Imagine waking up the next morning, and the next thing you know, you’re being accused of killing a cab driver. It’s so horrific to be accused of such a thing and have no idea if you’re guilty or not,” Michael said. “And that’s what he’s been faced with for so long, for 16 months.”