Judge Dearie (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
A federal judge turned a life sentence into a 35-year prison term for a man who, as a teenage gang member almost three decades ago, murdered two innocent men and then plotted to kill a witness against him.
Eastern District Judge Raymond Dearie modified Alex Wong’s sentence over prosecution objections, saying Friday he did so “with a lot of difficulty.”
Dearie made the decision in the wake of intervening U.S. Supreme Court case law on sentencing for juveniles and a resentencing bid from Wong that stressed his path of self-improvement from a violent 16-year-old who shot up a Queens restaurant to a remorseful man who has spent about 25 years in prison.
Prosecutors in the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office said Wong, 43, deserved a life sentence, given his crimes and his prison disciplinary record.
Dearie said his task in U.S. v. Wong, 90-cr-1019, was assessing Wong’s culpability at the time of the 1989 offense while applying the science now known about the still-changing adolescent brain.
“It does give us hope that perhaps you did not fully understand and assess the full range of consequences,” the judge said to Wong.
Dearie also imposed five years of supervised release, plus “strict compliance” with therapy and counseling.
Wong will be on a “short leash,” Dearie cautioned. “You pull at that leash, I will not hesitate for one minute to admit I made a mistake,” he said.
“I won’t let you down,” said Wong. Minutes earlier, Wong cried as he begged Dearie for mercy and a “second chance to prove to my family and all the people who believed in me that I wasn’t the person Judge [Reena] Raggi sentenced.”
Dearie said he was satisfied with Wong’s show of remorse. “I hope that remorse is enough to motivate you when you need it,” he said.
Though Raggi said Wong was not “unrehabilitatable” she said she would not “gamble with the safety of society,” according to 1992 sentencing minutes.
Dearie, however, said he was prepared to gamble, having more information than Raggi.
At age 13, Wong was recruited to the violent “Green Dragons” gang, which operated in the predominantly Chinese sections of Queens in Elmhurst and Flushing.
According to court papers, the gang extorted protection money from Chinese-run businesses, committed armed robberies, assaults, kidnapping, murders and other crimes.
In July 1989, the gang’s boss ordered the murder of a restaurant manager who refused to pay protection money.
Wong volunteered to commit the crime to prove his worth to the gang.
He went to the restaurant with another juvenile gang member. Wong and his accomplice shot the manager nine times at close range. Wong then shot at other restaurant patrons.
One diner, Anthony Gallivan, was fatally shot through the heart and another man was shot in the spine, causing partial paralysis.
Gallivan’s wife, Christine, said she held him in her arms as he died, according to court papers.
Wong was jailed in a state gun possession matter and was being investigated for the shooting. Trial evidence showed Wong—18 by then—discussing efforts to locate the eyewitness.
The efforts were unsuccessful.
Cruel and Unusual?
Wong was convicted of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering.
The prosecution was led by Loretta Lynch, who is now the U.S. attorney general. In 1992, Raggi sentenced Wong to two concurrent life terms. Sentencing guidelines, mandatory at the time, called for a life sentence.
At sentencing, Wong argued for departure from guideline terms; he instead pushed for a 25-year sentence due to lack of guidance as a youth, his age and his possible rehabilitation.
But Raggi, now a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, called it “chilling” to hear recordings where Wong urged the witness’s death. Christine Gallivan’s testimony, said Raggi, “will stay with me for many years.”
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, which stood for the proposition that mandatory life sentences for a defendant who was a juvenile at the time of the offense were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
Wong sought relief in light of Miller.
Wong’s counsel, Lloyd Epstein of Epstein & Weil, asked for resentencing to a 30-year term, saying his client has become a “mature, productive, and independent-thinking adult.”
Epstein said Wong turned to the gang as a “substitute family,” coming from a divorced home where his father worked 12-hour shifts and his mother, embarrassed by the divorce, made him call her his aunt.
In prison, Wong completed a program on reducing anger, communicating, managing stress and he finished a paralegal course. He built relationships with extended family and helped resolve conflicts between fellow inmates.
But prosecutors said Wong’s crimes were significant—a “far cry” from those committed by the 14-year-olds in Miller.
One Miller youth was the non-shooter accomplice in a deadly robbery and the other took part in a robbery and a fire where the victim died from smoke inhalation and a beating beforehand.
Furthermore, Wong has 28 disciplinary violations that included inmate stabbings in his 20s.
On Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Pravda acknowledged Wong had gone five or six years without incident and called his rehabilitation efforts “quite commendable.”
But Pravda reiterated Wong’s disciplinary history and said “Miller is not about a reward for merely turning a corner” or compliance “with the rules of the institution he’s in.”
Pravda said it was important not to “lose sight” of the underlying offense. He noted letters from victims and their families on the resentencing bid.
Christine Gallivan’s letter would stay with the prosecutor just as her testimony would stay with Raggi, said Pravda.
According to Dearie, part of Gallivan’s letter said, “I find no joy in another human’s suffering. My desire is not about seeking revenge or retribution. It’s about getting the right result. I leave Alex Wong to his God and me to mine.”
Dearie said he had to take a breath when he read her letter, noting a letter from another Gallivan relative who said he was glad he did not have to make the decision.
“Well, I do. And I do it with great difficulty,” the judge said.
Dearie noted there were a lot of young men in various communities like Wong years ago.
“My greatest fear is they misread what I have done today,” Dearie said and urged Wong to help them.
Outside the courtroom, Epstein, who had also represented Wong at the original sentence and appeal, said Dearie showed “an enormous amount of discretion” and made an “almost superhuman effort to achieve justice.”
The resentencing is the first of three pending in the Eastern District connected to the Green Dragons youth gang.
Nellin McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to comment.