Uncovering the Injustice: The ‘Seoul Station Homeless Female Death Case’ Trial and the Fight for Justice

2023-09-08 22:30:26

On July 7, a trial was held at the Seoul Central District Court for the perpetrator of the ‘Seoul Station Homeless Female Death Case’ (pseudo-rape-death incident). The victim’s fellow homeless person, Kang Ja-hye (pseudonym), drew a picture containing the trial scene she watched in her courtroom, the facts of her assailant’s crime, and what she witnessed herself. Provided by Kang Ja-hye

This story is a record of the difficult time leading up to the ‘sealing of the law’ by an invisible death.

An incident that was almost buried in obscurity

“Are you the defendant Hwang Byeong-gwan (pseudonym, 66)?” At the start of the trial, the judge (Presiding Judge Kim Seung-jeong, Criminal Agreement Division 29, Seoul Central District Court) confirmed the identity. “yes.” The moment the defendant entered the courtroom on the morning of July 7, Kang Ja-hye (pseudonym, 67)’s eyes widened. “That’s the guy.” He informed the homeless activists sitting next to him in the audience. Activists nodded and gestured, saying, ‘You can’t speak in court.’ What kind of person would beat a woman to death for four hours, with nothing but her bones remaining? Kang Ja-hye recognized the man at a glance. When she heard the news of Kim Mok-hwa (pseudonym, 55)’s death, the person Kang Ja-hye came to mind while reasoning about the perpetrator with her colleagues was ‘that man.’ If I hadn’t come to the trial that day, I might never have known that the man was really the culprit. Four months have already passed since the incident occurred. The defendant turned his head and looked around the audience. The attitude was different from the defendants who had lowered their gaze in the previous trial. That image remained strongly in Kang Ja-hye’s mind. On March 16, a homeless woman living near Seoul Station died. The fact that he disappeared from the station square about 10 days ago and died in the hospital emergency room was quickly spread among the homeless the next day. The hospital doctor reported the accidental death to the police, and the police investigating the incident became known as they searched the area around Seoul Station. The people of Seoul Station were shocked by the news that “Kim Mok-hwa was beaten to death by a man.” No information was available other than that the perpetrator was not homeless. Although the death was caused by a crime, the police and hospital refused requests to confirm the facts, saying it was “a matter between individuals” and “private territory.” Since no facts were given, only rumors and speculation abounded. Colleagues held a funeral without knowing the identity of the arrested criminal, the reason for the crime, or the process of death. Fellow homeless people and human rights group activists who had a relationship with the deceased while he was alive followed the perpetrator’s whereabouts. In order to mourn, one had to at least know the circumstances of the death. Eyewitness accounts and testimonies strongly pointed to one man. We gathered common impressions and created a montage. The ‘suspect’ also stopped appearing at Seoul Station for some time. People remembered it from around the time of Kim Mok-hwa’s death. The Hankyoreh also joined in the tracking. They searched for and collected the ‘last traces’ of the deceased and conveyed the ‘danger targeting women in the square.’ The death, which did not make the news, was recorded only two months after the death (May 13 Saturday edition cover story ‘Belated obituary of an unspeakable death’). The culprit was never identified. To fellow homeless people, Kim Mok-hwa’s death was still a secret hidden deep in a locked room.

The Hankyoreh’s May 13 Saturday edition cover story that first reported the ‘Seoul Station Homeless Female Death Case’.

“I didn’t know what to do.” Those who knocked on the door were the deceased’s brothers and sisters who were contacted during the reporting process. A body piled with layers of difficulties in life was blocked by difficulties even in death. When you have lived a socially vulnerable life, your relationship with your family was cut off a long time ago, and the person involved is a victim of a crime whose immediate family has given up their rights and responsibilities, you cannot even figure out the circumstances of their death if you cannot unlock the multiple layers of locks. It didn’t work. The latest news I heard after 20 years of loss of contact was the news of an ‘assault death’. The brothers and sisters were not fully informed of the results of the case and the circumstances before and after the transfer from the investigative agency, “perhaps because they were not direct relatives.” When I inquired with the police, I was told to ‘check with the prosecution call center.’ While submitting the documents required by the call center and going through the reporting process, they felt “devastated, as if they had entered a world they had never experienced before,” as they had lived their entire lives away from the criminal justice system. I confirmed the perpetrator’s trial information using the ‘case number’ that the deceased’s younger brother found out (mid-May) and provided to me. The trial (filed in court on April 11) had already begun (May 3) and two hearings had been completed. Meanwhile, the perpetrator had submitted a statement of remorse three times. As the deceased was virtually regarded as an unrelated person, there was no time for the opinions of the victim (surviving family members at the time of his death) to be reflected from the investigation stage to the trial. If it had not been possible to proceed to ‘recognition of the incident → inference of the perpetrator → Hankyoreh reporting → confirmation of the case number’, the case would have been closed with only the perpetrator’s reflections (a total of six times until sentencing) piled up in court without the bereaved family knowing about the trial. It was at this time that I finally learned the name and charges of the defendant, Hwang Byeong-gwan.

“A man I know… ”

It was a ‘quasi-rape fatality.’ It was not a simple assault. The facts that were hoped not to be the case while pursuing the identity of the perpetrator were summarized in a six-letter crime that confused the eyes of the deceased’s colleagues and activists. Homeless Action requested legal support from lawyer Seoyeon Jang (Gonggam, Public Interest Human Rights Law Foundation), a member of the organization’s steering committee. He, who also worked as a ‘homeless human rights defender’ (counseling street homeless people and monitoring human rights violations at Seoul Station and Namdaemun every Friday evening), met and talked to Kim Mok-hwa when she was alive at the station square. Surprised by the news that “Mr. Mok-hwa, who was very short and thin,” died due to a crime of sexual violence, he conveyed his intention to advocate for public interest to his bereaved family. The deceased’s brothers and sisters were divided in their opinions. The past time was a great trauma not only for the deceased who cut off contact with his family and chose a life on the road, but also for those who lost contact with the deceased. I could understand the daughter’s deep resentment for not answering the phone after confirming her mother’s death at the police station. Her older sister, who came to see her brother’s bloody body at the hospital, said she was traumatized and wanted to escape the ‘sudden pain’ as soon as possible. She was the youngest sister who wanted to console the deceased for his unfairness and difficult times. She persuaded other family members and decided to participate in the trial. Attorney Baek So-yoon, who has supported victims of sexual violence in ‘Empathy’, joined as a co-counsel and submitted a notice of appointment to the court on June 30. It was a week before the third trial. “Has the victim’s lawyer come forward?” the judge asked on July 7. “I am present.” The bereaved family members sat in the audience. The deceased’s homeless colleagues were also present. The judge asked a question as if trying to confirm the reason for attending at the very end of the trial schedule. “It seems like the family came, but they were completely unaware of (the victim’s) life or death? “I know, but didn’t we just communicate?” Attorney Seoyeon Jang responded. “I didn’t know because the victim had cut off contact.”

Kang Ja-hye (pseudonym) is scattering the ashes of Kim Mok-hwa at Yutaek Hill (common mountain shed) at the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Seunghwa Center on April 17. Homeless action provided

A public defender was seated next to the defendant. When a defendant in a criminal case does not appoint a lawyer, the court ‘must’ appoint a public defender, but the prosecution ‘could’ appoint a public defender for the victim. “If the defendant does not have a lawyer, the trial will not be held, but the appointment of the victim’s lawyer is not a necessary condition for the trial” (Baek So-yoon). It was not explained to Kim Mok-hwa’s siblings that in the case of sexual violence cases, there is a public support system such as a ‘victim’s public defender’. When the victim died and her children did not want to be involved, the trial began and ended quietly. For non-immediate family members, how the trial was conducted, who the perpetrator was, what the reason for the crime was, and what the sentencing outcome was became ‘unknown territory.’ “The examination of video evidence will be conducted privately.” Following the judge’s decision, all audience members left the courtroom. While the CCTV footage of Hwang Byeong-gwan assaulting Kim Mok-hwa was played on the court screen, the ‘witnesses’ gathered in the corner of the hallway. Homeless colleagues who came to check for themselves whether the ‘suspect’ who had even drawn a montage was the same person as the defendant tried to guess whether it matched the person they had suspected. “It’s the man from that alley.” On the night of the assault (March 5), Shin Ho-seong (pseudonym, 41) saw “the man who was holding Mok-hwa’s limp sister from behind and lifting her up from behind” in the alley at the scene of the incident. The day after his death (March 17), Yoon Yeon-jeong (pseudonym, 47), who saw the photo presented by a police officer specializing in homeless people at the Seoul Station police box while interrogating the criminal, also nodded, saying, “That’s right.” Kang Ja-hye said, “My heart pounded when I saw the man I had greeted with a smile on the third floor of Seoul Station in the courtroom.” She was “scared and shaken by the fact that someone she knew sexually assaulted Kim Mok-hwa and left her until she died.” There was a common eyewitness story between them. “When a man showed up at Seoul Station, he first looked for Kim Mok-hwa. When he couldn’t see Kim Cotton, he would ask where he was. Kim Mok-hwa used to hang out in front of the tent (homeless living space on the street) when he was away. When asked who he was, he answered ‘taxi driver’ or ‘truck driver’. When I asked him why he was looking for him, he said, ‘I’m trying to protect the cotton.’ “In addition to Kim Mok-hwa, I also approached and hung around other homeless women.” The bereaved family members were listening to their conversation in silence.

If you can’t go to court

“Please sentence the defendant to 25 years in prison.” After the video investigation was over, the prosecutor re-entered the court and made his “final opinion.” “Taking advantage of the victim’s drunken state, he followed her to the victim’s residence and attempted to have sex, but when the victim lay down on the street and things did not go his way, he assaulted the victim and quasi-raped her, ultimately leading to her death from intra-abdominal bleeding… .” The defendant’s lawyer argued in his closing argument that it was an ‘accidental incident.’ “It is true that I made a serious mistake, but it happened while I was sobering up,” he said, appealing for “lenient punishment.” In a handwritten opinion (to be submitted to the court) submitted when he was admitted to the detention center last April, Hwang Byeong-gwan wrote that his relationship with the deceased was “meeting occasionally for a meal.” He said, “I caused this accident after drinking alcohol,” and “I am very mentally unstable.” Regarding the reason for the crime, he wrote, “I don’t know much.” His actions by time slot, as summarized in the prosecution’s indictment and evidence list, were blatant criminal acts that a “cotton protector” could not have committed “accidentally.” On March 5, Hwang Byeong-gwan, who was wandering around the Seoul Station square, met Kim Mok-hwa at 6:52 p.m. After buying him drinks and food, he followed Kim Mok-hwa, who said he was ‘going to a gosiwon.’ When Kim Mok-hwa collapsed from alcohol in an alley in a building in Jungnim-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, he was assaulted about 300 times with his hands, feet, and fists from 8:25 to 00:11 the next day. Hit or kicked the face, side, genitals, etc. He even stepped on the boat with his feet and sat on it. An act of pseudo-rape that cannot be conveyed in text was repeated 13 times. He left the scene without Kim Mok-hwa, who was not moving. He also had a history of being punished for murder a long time ago. “Rest in peace.” When the judge said, “If you have any last words, just say them,” Hwang Byeong-kwan bowed his head and spoke briefly.

On December 12 last year, the first day of the ‘2022 Homeless Memorial Week’, names and life information and memorial roses commemorating homeless and unrelated deaths were placed on the steps of Seoul Station Square. Senior Reporter Kang Chang-gwang [email protected]

The judge concluded the argument at the trial (third date) on this day. The first trial in which the victim participated became a final trial. Although the evidence was clear and the defendant admitted all of the charges, the ‘speed of the law’ was too fast and smooth compared to the time the victim had to come to court. Even so, if the victim had not been in court that day, the trial could have ended without the victim even knowing what happened. Something happened without the victim’s family knowing. “(There was no agreement) so you only made a criminal deposit?” The defendant’s lawyer answered the judge’s questions. “yes.” Attorney Seo-yeon Jang said. “I have not received any communication from the defendant that they are willing to settle.” Hwang Byeong-gwan’s lawyer said. “Because it is difficult to identify the victim in a sexual assault case and (the victim in this case) has already died, we proceeded with criminal deposition.” Attorney Baek So-yoon said. “The bereaved family only confirmed the facts of this incident (crime) today. “The contents of the criminal deposit have never been delivered.” On July 5, the defendant made a criminal deposit of 10 million won. The court notified the victims’ lawyers of the deposit by phone on July 11, four days after the trial. Since December 9 of last year, criminal deposits without the consent of the victim have become possible (Article 5-2 of the Deposit Act, ‘Special Provisions for Criminal Deposits’). The intention was to prevent secondary damage that occurred in the process of the perpetrator finding out the victim’s personal information (a necessary condition for depositing to prove the victim’s consent until the enforcement of special provisions), but as a result, “even unilateral deposits made against the victim’s will can cause damage.” It opened the way for people to regard it as recovery” (Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center). This was the reason why the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center requested the addition of the phrase ‘exclusion of deposit without the victim’s consent’ to the reasons for reduction of the ‘Sexual Crime Sentencing Guidelines’. Concerns were also confirmed in the death of Kim Mok-hwa. “If the defendant had not been able to go to court on the day the defense ended, the criminal deposit would have been used only as a means to mitigate the perpetrator without the bereaved family even being aware of it” (Baek So-yoon). Kim Mok-hwa’s bereaved family refused to receive the deposit. Instead, a petition was submitted demanding severe punishment. “Her judge, please have pity on my sister who was not treated as a human being both in life and in death. (…) She earnestly asks that you never take lightly the weight of the scales of her sentence (the perpetrator) just because her sister was the one who lived her life as a homeless person.” The youngest brother who wrote the petition asked a question. “Even after her sister was taken to the hospital, she did not contact our family. She is said to have been in the hospital for 10 days and it was only after she died that the police contacted her. How painful and lonely it must have been until the moment of death. “Is it okay to ignore homeless patients like that?” Why did the hospital, which must have been unaware of the serious assault from the time he was brought in, report it to the police only after the person died? Why did the police, who should have checked the deceased’s condition during transport to the hospital, begin the investigation only after he died? Aren’t investigative agencies and medical institutions easily ignoring people who are homeless? The bereaved family could not shake off their doubts. I had no idea that these unresolved doubts were the real difficulties the deceased faced.

On the evening of the 6th, a homeless woman was filmed moving with a bag on a cart at Seoul Station and processed into graphics. Senior Reporter Lee Jeong-yong [email protected]

invisible women

“I think you should never be beaten to death just because you live on the streets.” Kang Ja-hye also wrote and submitted a petition. He had several conversations with Kim Mok-hwa before her death, but did not know her name. I found out when Hwang Byeong-gwan asked, “Have you seen the cotton?” “That man didn’t even say an apology during his final statement.” Kang Ja-hye was boiling inside. After she returned from court that day, she heard other things about Hwang Byeong-gwan from her colleagues at the square. She said, “He showed off naked photos of a young homeless woman and bragged about it.” She was a woman that Kang Ja-hye knew, and she also remembered seeing Hwang Byeong-gwan talking to that woman. “Homeless women were extremely reluctant to have their faces photographed, and so was she.” “She must have been given alcohol or something mixed with alcohol,” Kang Ja-hye guessed. She was no different as to why he didn’t tell anyone where she slept. This was because she had long suffered from the daily dangers that prey on homeless women. Just like Hwang Byeong-kwan, who asked for Kim Mok-hwa’s location every time she came to Seoul Station, Kang Ja-hye also had a man who asked her whereabouts whenever she met, saying that she was “the woman he likes.” Every time, she felt extreme fear. Even as she walked up and down the street she was nervous and if she saw a man she would hide or run away. She said, “This is something that every homeless woman goes through.” The process of women becoming homeless was often the result of violence. They became ‘homeless women’ as they ran away from sexual violence and domestic violence. In the square where they were exposed to the gaze of all directions, in the church where they went to find a place to rest for the night, at the soup kitchen where they lined up to get a meal, or at the gosiwon where they lived with temporary housing support, they were criticized because they were women and said, “Men are screwed over.” It was rejected, saying, “It gets noisy.” To protect yourself, you had to be invisible. They are excluded from the government’s ‘homeless’ count as they hide themselves in saunas or PC rooms. He even chose to avoid the plaza and live there by cleaning the park’s restrooms. The time they went through is also included in the recently published book ‘He Goes Into Her Bag’ (Humanitas). The times that Kang Ja-hye (the name used in the book is ‘Seo Ga-suk’) and Yoon Yeon-jeong (‘Lim Mi-hee’ in the book) lived as ‘invisible women’ are also written. In its opinion submitted to the court, Homeless Action emphasized that Kim Mok-hwa’s death was “an incident targeting homeless women who are more vulnerable due to their gender characteristics.” “Please sound an alarm to society, the government, and local governments so that the safety and welfare of homeless women who are left out of the human rights and (male-centered) support system can be strengthened by severely punishing the perpetrators,” he requested. “As a result of the crime in this case, the victim lost his precious life, which is a terrible result that cannot be recovered by any means.” The sentencing hearing was held on the afternoon of August 22, when the second rainy season began across the country. “order. The defendant is sentenced to 17 years in prison.” While the judge was reading the verdict, the defendant also stared straight at the judge. The defendant’s criminal record was reflected as a sentencing factor. The death of Kim Mok-hwa, who almost evaporated transparently in ‘The World Not to Talk’, was briefly mentioned in the facts of the perpetrator’s crime. On August 24, Hwang Byeong-gwan appealed. In an opinion written while imprisoned in a detention center, he said, “If you punish me according to the law, I will follow it.” The prosecution also submitted an appeal the next day. “Because the sentencing of the case does not mean that the case is over.” (Hong Soo-kyung, senior activist at Homeless Action) Homeless Action was concerned about “the recurrence of similar crimes in the absence of a support system for female homeless people.” Response activities were planned “so that the death of the deceased does not end up as an incident that only increases the anxiety of fellow homeless people.” A statement and policy proposal will be announced on the 12th that points out the circumstances of the deceased’s death and the meaning of the trial, which could not be ascertained until five months later. We plan to produce and distribute a special edition of ‘Homeless News’ (on the 15th) to inform the homeless society, which is still confused by ‘rumours’, with accurate facts. On the evening of the 21st, the Seoul Station memorial service for the deceased, which had been postponed for some time, will ‘finally’ be held. Reporter Lee Moon-young [email protected]
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