A US appellate court overturned the "murder for hire" conviction of a Chinese gang kingpin who wanted a rival killed to expand his criminal empire, court documents showed on Friday.
Wo Hop To gang boss Peter Chong in San Francisco evidently condoned assassinating a Boston rival but didn't pay the aspiring killers anything, Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Fisher and two other appellate judges ruled that, according to the law, Chong can't be guilty of contracting a murder if he didn't exchange "anything of pecuniary value" for the dirty work.
The evidence at trial showed that an underling, who failed in his deadly mission, "volunteered for a dangerous assignment and wound up getting some walking-around money in the course of traveling to Boston," Fisher wrote.
The judges faulted federal prosecutors for asking directly during the trial whether intended hitmen were paid for the job.
"Accordingly, we reverse Chong's conviction on murder-for-hire," Fisher concluded.
Chong is to remain in custody pending a hearing at which his sentence will be revised, the judges decreed.
Jurors that convicted Chong at a trial in 2003 found him guilty of conspiring to contract a murder, along with "participating in a racketeer influenced and corrupt organization" and several counts of extortion.
Chong, who is in his early 60s, was sentenced to slightly more than 15 years in federal prison for his original convictions.
Chong's lawyer argued publicly after the Thursday court ruling that Chong should be freed because he has already spent enough time behind bars, given the murder-for-hire charge was tossed.
Chong came to the United States in 1982 to supposedly establish a Chinese opera company, but rose to be boss of the Wo Hop To crime syndicate in Northern California, according to court documents.
The gang specialized in loan sharking and extorting protection money from restaurants and gambling dens.
Chong forged alliances with fellow gangsters Wayne Kwong and Raymond Chow to form "an umbrella organization" called "Tien Ha Wui," which translates to "Whole Earth Association," according to prosecutors.
The gangsters envisioned getting a foothold on the East Coast by eliminating Bike Ming, boss of the Boston gang "Ping On," and setting up a gambling operation in that city's Chinatown.