Hong Kong manslaughter appeal denied

Father discusses bizarre taxi case while Chico State’s Kelsey Mudd stays in prison

Kelsey Mudd and his father, Michael, are shown here working on Kelsey’s defense in 2009 in Hong Kong. The Chico State student is due to get out of prison in 2013.

Kelsey Mudd and his father, Michael, are shown here working on Kelsey’s defense in 2009 in Hong Kong. The Chico State student is due to get out of prison in 2013.

PHOTO courtesy of Michael Mudd

Imagine you’re an honor student, four units shy of graduating from college, volunteering at a summer camp for disabled kids. One night you go out for a few drinks with your dad, stepmom and a friend. Then you wake up in a hospital bed, being told you killed a man.

This is the story of Kelsey Mudd, a Chico State student who, since that fateful night in June 2009, has been detained in Hong Kong. After a lengthy court battle—which, to hear his father, Michael Mudd, explain it—was extremely frustrating, Kelsey was found guilty of manslaughter. A jury of seven—including one non-English speaker—agreed that Kelsey had taken control of a taxi after leaving the bar, resulting in an accident that killed the driver.

In October 2010, Kelsey was sentenced to more than four years in a Hong Kong prison. Last week, his appeal was denied, dashing his hopes of getting his life back on track in 2012.

Surprisingly, his spirits were high on New Year’s Day, when his dad visited him in prison, one of two half-hour visits he gets with his son each month.

“I thought he’d be depressed,” the elder Mudd said during a recent Skype interview from Hong Kong. “Overall he’s in good spirits. I’d hoped that he could solve this, get back to university and finish his degree—he has just one semester left—and go on and lead a good life.”

That will just have to wait, however. In the meantime, Kelsey spends his days in a minimum-security correctional facility (an upgrade from the max-security prison he spent seven months in following his conviction). He works six hours a day sewing sheets for the hospital authority, has no access to Internet and can send just one letter out per week. Those usually go to his mother, who lives in Florida. She has plans to visit her son in Hong Kong in March.

More than anything, Michael Mudd said, he’s disillusioned by the judicial system in Hong Kong, a place he’s called home for more than three decades. The courts follow the common-law system, similar to that of Britain and many other English-speaking countries. But while the judge was an English speaker, the jury’s proficiency in the language varied. All witness testimony, Michael explained, was given in Cantonese and translated for the judge and others into English. Expert testimony, however, was given in English and not translated for the Chinese jury.

According to the appeal judgment, the story goes like this: Taxi driver Wong Chi Ming, at 3:30 a.m. June 27, 2009, came to a stop on a main road and exited his vehicle.

“Wong appeared to be struggling with the passenger in the front seat of the vehicle, attempting to drag him from the vehicle,” the appeal decision states. “… the witnesses testified that Wong was still outside his taxi when it began to move. It appeared that initially, as he ran alongside his vehicle, Wong was reaching into the vehicle through the open door, his hands on the steering wheel. … Wong then fell and, being entangled somehow in the driver’s seat belt, was dragged alongside the taxi.”

The taxi collided with a cement divider and then oncoming traffic before stopping. A TV crew arrived as emergency personnel tended to Wong and Kelsey Mudd, inside the taxi. The man tending to Mudd testified that Mudd tapped the gear shift and then put his foot on the accelerator. The defense, using evidence of collision marks on the windshield and approximate speed of the vehicle, argued this was not possible, that Mudd was merely trying to regain control of the taxi that had shifted into neutral.

In his appeal, Mudd’s attorney could only contest the judge’s directions and summation of testimony to the jury. The three judges on the appeal panel ruled that the criminal judge had done nothing wrong.

But the pieces just don’t add up for Michael Mudd.

“The system is failing anybody who is going to court, and more so foreigners because of the language issue,” he said. “The driver passed away five hours after the accident. When they asked him, his response was, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know what happened.’ At no time did he blame Kelsey. If he had, the words of a dying man would have been taken as sacrosanct. The driver did not blame Kelsey. He couldn’t explain what happened to him.”

He also pointed to several news articles highlighting a practice of some Hong Kong taxi drivers, in collusion with pretty women, of drugging foreign men, placing them in their taxi, robbing them and then dumping them on the side of the road. Before leaving the bar that night, Kelsey had a beer with a pretty woman, his friend testified. But no one will know what really happened that night.

For now the Mudds are working on getting Kelsey paroled early—in summer 2013, about six months earlier than he’s due to get out.

“It’s always been my belief that if you don’t know, you give benefit of doubt to the defendant. I’m disappointed and let down by the system more than anything,” Michael said. “When my son leaves Hong Kong, so shall I.”