This week’s banner ought to read “No Laughing Matter,” because my general subject is mass incarceration in America. Simply put, we account for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its inmates. In 1970 we had 200,000 inmates, today it’s 2,300,000. My specific subject is Andrew Suh, one of those 2,300,000. His tragic story was chronicled in a 2010 award-winning documentary “The House of Suh.”
Andrew’s childhood began with such hope. When he was two, the Suhs immigrated from Seoul, South Korea to Chicago. Being male, Andrew was the golden child while his older sister, Catherine, was slighted. As a highly attractive teenager, Catherine rebelled and quickly learned to manipulate men. Her “old world” father, Ronald, a former military officer, considered her promiscuous. To save the “family’s honor,” he poured gas over them to set the two on fire. (Thankfully, her mother, Elizabeth, interceded but the die was cast.)
A few years later, Ronald was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Andrew, 10, stayed by his father’s side at the hospital. He even tied a string to his wrist so that Ronald could wake him at any moment. Andrew’s devotion was lionized with a story in the local Korean newspaper, “The Good Son.”
On his deathbed, Ronald insisted Andrew vow to protect his mother. Even more unimaginable pain befell Andrew when, three years later, his mother was brutally murdered, stabbed 37 times at the family dry cleaning business. In fact, after the police left the crime scene, it was up to Andrew, now an orphan, to literally clean up his mother’s blood.
Being the male child, Andrew inherited the substantial estate. Bitter about not being loved herself, Catherine was hardly nurturing. But she pretended to care about Andrew so she’d be appointed his legal guardian and have access to the money. Andrew felt abandoned and lost but it seemed better than living in foster care.
Things got even worse when Robert O’Dubaine, Catherine’s opportunist boyfriend, in his mid-20’s moved in and acted like the “man of the house.” (Indicative of his character, he’d changed his name to “O’Dubaine” to avoid paying back taxes.) The couple quickly began squandering Andrew’s inheritance as they bought an upscale house, redecorated and opened a nightclub nearby.
Controlling Andrew, Catherine insisted he be popular at school and he complied. He was on the football team, class president for three years and finally student body president. While he was a “star” on campus, inside he was plagued by loneliness, “You couldn’t talk to friends about your mother being murdered.”
As business began failing, Catherine convinced Andrew that Robert was physically abusing her. When Andrew interceded, Robert brandished a gun. Andrew’s only hope to escape the madness was his scholarship to Providence College in Rhode Island. There, for the first time in his life, he might be able to discover himself.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Catherine confided to Andrew that Robert had murdered their mother. Andrew insisted they go to the police but Catherine countered they would just arrest her as she had been Robert’s alibi. Catherine pleaded that Andrew’s killing Robert was the only way to save their family’s honor. (Ignoring that $250,000 life insurance policy she had on Robert.)
Over the course of several weeks, Catherine phoned Andrew at college 60 times. She finally bought Andrew a plane ticket, arranged for him to arrive at her house and gave him a gun.
On a ruse their car broke down, Catherine conned Robert into coming home. And Andrew, in a state of complete confusion and nearly two decades of PTSD, murdered him. Guilt-ridden, Andrew confessed to police but Catherine disappeared. Six months later, having been featured on “America’s Most Wanted,” she was captured in Hawaii. Having invented a new life with a new boyfriend, the press labeled her the “Black widow.”
At his high profile trial, Andrew’s incompetent lawyer inexplicably persuaded him NOT to have a jury or testify. The police and D.A. were adamant Catherine had been the “mastermind,” but, despite that, and Andrew’s having been an honor student, the judge sentenced him to 100 years.
During the past 22 years in a 5′ x 9′ cell, Andrew has been a model prisoner. Pursuing an A.A. degree, he also teaches inmate classes and provides care for his elderly Korean cellmate. Andrew is fluent in three languages, is extremely bright, congenial and, above all, remorseful. But, in spite of everything he’s endured, Andrew has not lost his sense of humor. During our phone chats, he not only enjoys my occasional joke but has a few of his own.
Andrew’s earliest prison release is 2037. He lives on hope the Illinois Governor might intervene. That’s where you come in. Google “Clemency for Andrew Suh” and sign his petition! You might just help give the “Good Son” a second chance at life.
Photo: Immigrant family looking for a new start. Andrew, Elizabeth, Catherine and Ronald Suh, 1975