This article has been updated to include further comment from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
It had been more than a year since Jack Liao had seen his grandfather in person, but it wasn’t a happy reunion. They were in a San Francisco courtroom on April 14 seeking justice for a violent attack on Jack’s 84-year-old grandfather, which happened in February 2020.
Rong Xin Liao was one of the first victims of what’s become a disturbing trend of brutal attacks on elderly Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic. Surveillance video shows a man jump-kicking Rong Xin Liao in the face with such force that he flies out of his walker and hits the sidewalk pavement.
The elderly Liao speaks little English and was relying on his 26-year-old grandson and other family members to translate the court proceedings last week. But after some confusion, they realized the accused attacker, 24-year-old Eric Ramos-Hernandez, wasn’t going to be on trial. He wasn’t getting sentenced. In fact, he wasn’t even there.
After spending seven months in jail, Ramos-Hernandez had been “diverted” last year, meaning instead of being prosecuted for a crime, he returned home and is getting mental health treatment. If completed satisfactorily, all charges will be dropped. The Liao family had actually attended a mental health diversion check-in.
Shocked, Jack Liao exited the courtroom in a daze and rejoined a rally happening outside for his grandfather. “I started asking everybody I could what was going on because I had no idea,” Jack Liao said in an interview with Here/Say Media.
The Liao family is now speaking out, saying that the San Francisco District Attorney’s office kept them in the dark about what was happening and used Rong Xin Liao’s age and lack of English language skills to misrepresent his wishes in order to make the case for Ramos-Hernandez to not be prosecuted. Their allegations would constitute a violation of Marsy’s Law, a state law that grants certain rights to victims and their families, legal experts say.
The Liaos have also found themselves in the crosshairs of two competing social movements. On the one hand, Asian-Americans are demanding justice to ensure their voices are heard in the criminal justice system as attacks against them rise, with one group finding a 149% surge in Asian-American hate crimes in 2020 and another documenting 3,795 hate incidents during the pandemic. On the other hand is San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s platform of restorative justice, aimed at keeping people out of jail and focusing on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.
The Liaos say they want Ramos-Hernandez prosecuted because he is dangerous. Jack Liao says after the incident, his grandfather underwent surgery to relieve brain swelling and sustained a broken collarbone, a skull fracture and likely brain damage. In addition, his grandfather, who loves roaming about the city, going on trips with friends and playing Bingo, is now scared to leave his senior home.
“We just want my grandpa to feel safe; we want everybody to feel safe,” Jack Liao said. “I’m 26 years old, and even I don’t feel safe. My firm stance is that this was a violent hate crime, especially because of the rise in stigma against Asian Americans. It disgusts me that our DA and justice system is failing us and refusing to take this as seriously as a hate crime, and I find that even more ridiculous because a lot of Asian hate cases are blowing up around the country.”
According to Jack Liao, the DA’s office told the family his grandfather did not want to press charges. The family says Rong Xin Liao would have never said that.
“When I talked to my grandfather two days ago he said he definitely wanted the attacker to be punished,” Jack Liao said, also pointing to an interview his grandfather did with ABC, where the grandfather says, “I want a very strict punishment…but I don’t want him to be executed.”
Jack Liao says he and his father were only contacted twice by the DA’s office in 2020, right after the attack happened, and were put under the impression that the trial would be postponed until 2021. Jack Liao said he did not hear from the DA’s office again until the family’s trip to the courtroom on April 14, 2021. Unbeknownst to them, the DA’s office had been in touch with his grandfather multiple times throughout 2020 and the case proceeded, including moving Ramos-Hernandez out of the normal court process and into the mental health program in fall 2020.
“They expected a senior citizen who was traumatized and confused and doesn’t understand English, to understand legal jargon,” Jack Liao said. “When old people don’t understand, they just smile and nod.”
In an emailed statement to Here/Say Media, the DA’s office said they are working to follow up with the Liao family to ensure that their views are heard, and that the DA’s office needs more Chinese translation resources.
“When DA Boudin took office there was just one Chinese speaking victim advocate in the office—not nearly enough to properly serve the needs of the community. DA Boudin has consistently demanded more resources for victim services, including language access,” DA spokeswoman Rachel Marshall wrote in the emailed statement.
However, Thomas Ostly, a former prosecutor at the DA’s office, said that citing lack of language resources is a poor excuse.
“As an attorney I’ve never failed to communicate with a victim because of a language barrier,” he said. “There are many options.” He cited a city ordinance that requires city agencies to provide language services.
Ostly also said that good and frequent communication with a victim and their family can help them understand why certain paths are being pursued, because in some cases, even for a violent attack, behavioral treatment may be the right thing to do.
Ramos-Hernandez’s attorney told Here/Say Media that with mental health treatment, Ramos-Hernandez is now healthier and more stable than he would have been had he remained in jail. In an emailed statement, Deputy Public Defender Sylvia Cediel said Ramos-Hernandez has suffered from trauma, mental health and substance abuse issues since his youth, and after finishing a substance abuse and mental health treatment program, is now able to work full-time and live with his family.
“After his arrest from this deeply regrettable incident, he spent several months in custody before his case was accepted into Mental Health Diversion court which allowed him to be released into an intensive residential treatment program to support his mental health and recovery from substance abuse. … He has shown that he is dedicated to his recovery and to fulfilling all of his court requirements,” Cediel wrote in an emailed statement.
Jack Liao says that the DA reaching out after Ramos-Hernandez had already been moved to a mental health program is “too little too late” for them. But he hopes that by speaking out, he can prevent other victims and their families from experiencing the same thing his has.
“I don’t know if this guy is going to walk free or if we are going to get the justice for my grandpa that he deserves,” he said. “But we’re a little more hopeful now that at the very least we can get the story out and prevent it from happening again to other families.”
Anna Tong is a freelance journalist covering crime and tech trends in San Francisco. Follow her @annatonger.