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Yun Hseng Liao

Other Los Angeles County Exonerations
At 4 a.m. on August 4, 2002, 16-year-old Henry Chen was violently awakened by someone hitting him with a hammer in West Covina, California. In severe pain with lacerations on his head and broken bones in his hands from trying to protect himself, Chen yelled and shoved his attacker away.

As he came fully awake, Henry yelled, “What are you doing?” and saw his mother’s former boyfriend, 44-year-old Yun Hseng Liao, standing against the wall with the hammer in his raised hand.

Liao seemed confused. Henry’s mother, Chang Qun Li came into the room and demanded to know what was going on. Liao replied that he had been dreaming that someone was attacking him and that he was hitting back.

Liao called 911 and for an ambulance, saying that Henry had fallen down a flight of stairs. He said he feared going to jail and told Henry to tell the same story. However, at the hospital, Henry told physicians and police that Liao had attacked him.

Police found the hammer in the bushes below a balcony where Liao apparently had thrown it after the attack. They also found a bag containing duct tape and handcuffs.

Li told police that she and Liao had been together for about four years. During that time, Liao had frequent nightmares. Li said that she sometimes saw him get up in the middle of the night, wander around in a drunken-like stagger with a dazed look on his face, and then go back to sleep. She said he did not drink alcohol or use drugs.

Li told police she had broken off their relationship in late 2001, but Liao periodically came to her apartment asking her to take him back. She said he had come by the evening before the attack. They quarreled and she then went to bed. She woke up at 1 a.m. and saw him standing in the doorway to her bedroom. She asked him why he was there and Liao said, “For nothing.”

Li said she was next awakened when Henry was attacked.

Liao was charged with attempted murder, corporal injury to a child, and assault with a deadly weapon in relation to the attack on Henry. He was also charged with making threats against Li, who claimed that he had threatened to kill her and her children if she did not resume their relationship.

Prior to trial, Liao’s attorneys requested a court order authorizing a sleep study for Liao. The motion was granted, but a court clerk incorrectly told one of Laio’s attorneys that it had been denied. Liao’s attorneys never questioned that information.

Liao went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in June 2003. The trial became a battle of experts.

Dr. William Vicary, a psychiatrist, testified for the defense that Liao had suffered serious head trauma at age 12. Since then, he had suffered from depression while living in Taiwan and had once been prescribed medicine for depression while living in Arizona. In addition, he testified, other members of Liao’s family had suffered from mental disorders.

Dr. Vicary conducted three hours of interviews with Liao, and reviewed the police reports and preliminary hearing testimony. Based on this, he concluded that Liao suffered from chronic, major depression with psychotic features. Vicary also believed Liao’s behavior during the attack was consistent with some sort of sleep disorder. However, he told the jury he could not categorize it—it was not precisely sleepwalking, night terrors, or a pathological form of nightmares.

Vicary admitted it was “a very confusing case and it was very difficult for me to reach initial conclusions.” Nevertheless, he said, Liao was in “an altered mental state” when he attacked Henry.

Vicary said there were factors that suggested the attack was intentional, such as Liao’s failed relationship with Li, with whom he had begun a relationship after leaving his own wife and children. Liao had been jobless for several months and had borrowed a large sum of money from Li. She was pressuring him to pay it back by putting her name on the house where Liao’s wife and children still lived. At the same time, Liao had come to believe that Li was seeing other men. During their arguments, he sometimes banged his head on her car.

Vicary ultimately conceded that despite Liao’s mental problems, he had the ability to reason, harbor a motive, and form the intent to kill someone.

Dr. Clete Kushida, a medical doctor board certified in sleep medicine, testified for the defense that the facts of the case appeared to be “compatible to the diagnosis of sleepwalking,” also known as somnambulism.

Dr. Kushida testified that Liao “may be a sleepwalker,” although he admitted he did not personally examine Liao or interview any of Liao’s family members or friends. He said that to be more conclusive, he would want to do a medical evaluation that included a sleep study.

Dr. Kushida said that he had seen patients throw things at him while brain wave monitors indicated they were asleep. He was also aware of reports of people hitting other people, sexually assaulting other people, or even driving a car while asleep. He cited a case in which a man drove to his in-laws’ house, stabbed his mother-in-law to death, and strangled his father-in-law to unconsciousness, all while sleepwalking.

Dr. Kushida said it was possible for a sleepwalker to pick up a hammer while asleep and use it to hit someone in the head.

In rebuttal, the prosecution called psychiatrist Dr. Kaushal Sharma, who had evaluated 200 to 300 cases in which a patient or a criminal defendant claimed to be sleepwalking. Dr. Sharma said that after reviewing the reports from the defense experts, he concluded there was insufficient evidence to diagnose Liao as a sleepwalker.

Dr. Sharma noted that Liao had never undergone a sleep study, during which electrodes monitor brain activity while a subject sleeps. He further said there was insufficient support for the conclusion that Liao suffered from major depression with psychotic features. In Dr. Sharma’s opinion, Liao’s anger and jealousy more likely caused of the attack.

Dr. Sharma noted that although there were numerous objects on the floor of Henry’s bedroom, Liao picked up the hammer, which Henry had used earlier that day to hang pictures. Dr. Sharma said that the multiple blows to Henry’s head showed Liao had no difficulty finding and aiming at his target. In addition, Liao’s attempt to concoct a false story—that Henry fell down the stairs—and throwing the hammer off the balcony showed he was well aware of what was going on, Dr. Sharma testified.

On June 16, 2003, the jury acquitted Liao of threatening Li, and convicted him of attempted murder, corporal injury to a child, and assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to life in prison with parole plus four years.

In studying the case record, Liao’s appellate lawyer discovered that in fact the defense’s request for a sleep study had been granted—not denied—prior to Liao’s trial. The appellate lawyer filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The case was remanded to the trial court and Superior Court Judge Robert Martinez ordered a sleep study to be conducted.

At an evidentiary hearing in 2008, Dr. Milton Erman testified that based on the study, he concluded that Liao was a somnambulist, also known as a sleepwalker. He also testified that Liao’s behavior on the night of the attack was consistent with not having been a “focused assault that leads to injuries that might have been expected had there been an intent to really seriously injure or kill, that there was amnesia and confusion following the episode.”

In 2009, Judge Martinez found that Liao’s lawyers had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to ascertain that the sleep study had been approved prior to trial. At the same time, however, the judge ruled that even if the defense had the results of a sleep study at the time of the trial, Liao still would have been convicted.

In 2010, after the Second District California Court of Appeal upheld that ruling, Liao filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In 2014, U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal denied the petition.

However, in 2016, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that decision, granted the writ, and ordered Liao, who had been released on parole in June 2015, to have a new trial.

The appeals court ruled that Dr. Erman’s conclusion “would have served to explain and to interpret Liao’s behavior that was not consistent with trying to murder Li’s son with premeditation” and could have resulted in Liao being acquitted. The court was particularly critical of Judge Martinez for failing to address all of the relevant facts when deciding to reject Liao’s state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. “With all respect to our colleague on the Superior Court, we do not see how any ‘fair-minded jurist’ could have arrived at such a faulty determination,” the appeals court said.

On September 9, 2016, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against Liao.

In February 2018, Liao filed a claim for compensation from the state of California, seeking $1,178,000.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/11/2018
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Child Abuse, Assault
Reported Crime Date:2002
Age at the date of reported crime:44
Contributing Factors:Inadequate Legal Defense, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No