U.S. v. Chi Fai Wong
In the early 1990s, Chi Fai Wong was convicted of orchestrating a shooting in Brooklyn in which three of the victims tragically died. Mr. Wong, a Chinese immigrant with almost no knowledge of the United States legal system and whose attorney represented multiple other defendants, received a triple-life sentence in a federal racketeering trial. He was remanded to the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Mr. Wong consistently maintained his innocence, and for nearly 30 years, he languished in a correctional facility, living a Buddhist lifestyle. In those 30 years, he received no disciplinary violations or otherwise had a single infraction of any BOP rules.
In 2016, Mr. Wong was diagnosed with metastatic papillary thyroid cancer. At that time, he was in his mid-60’s. After a series of unsuccessful surgeries failed to remove all of the cancer and reduced him to a liquid-only diet, Bureau of Prisons physicians and an outside consultant from Jefferson University in Philadelphia, retained by Dilworth Paxson, agreed that Mr. Wong had less than 18-months to live unless he received a tracheotomy that would leave him completely unable to speak.
Dilworth Paxson petitioned the BOP on behalf of Mr. Wong, arguing that because Mr. Wong presented no danger to society and because he had only a matter of months to live, the BOP should grant Mr. Wong a compassionate release, which would allow him to live the remainder of his life at home with his loved ones and seek advanced medical care not available at a BOP facility. The compassionate release petition did not contest the merits of Mr. Wong’s underlying conviction, but rather only looked at the facts as they existed at the time – Mr. Wong had very little time to live and posed no threat to society. The BOP agreed that Mr. Wong presented no danger to society, but it denied the compassionate release, arguing that Mr. Wong’s cancer did not put him on an “end-of-life trajectory” because he could potentially live for several more years if he simply consented to receiving a tracheotomy.
The First Step Act of 2018 allowed Dilworth to file a petition seeking compassionate release in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, where Mr. Wong had been sentenced. During the very first appearance before the Court, Dilworth lawyers argued that Mr. Wong may only have days to live, and the Court should make a decision on this matter as soon as possible. The next day, the Court entered an Order granting Mr. Wong’s release and a substantial opinion discussing the importance of compassionate release.
In addition to the profound difference that the decision made for Mr. Wong and his family, this case appears to be the first time in United States history that a federal court granted compassionate release to a person serving a life sentence. The decision is regularly cited for the proposition that in the United States, compassion knows no bounds.