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Simon Liu Isn’t A Sex Offender. But He’s Still on the Registry For Life.

California’s expansive registry law forces people to pay for crimes they didn’t personally commit.

Image of man against window.
Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Search for Zhuo “Simon” Liu in California’s online database of registered sex offenders and you’ll see a snapshot of his offenses. You’ll learn that he was convicted of “rape in concert with force or violence” and “assault with intent to commit a specified sex offense.” You’ll also see his photo, his home address, and his birthdate, showing that he’s now 38.  

But you won’t learn that Liu was labeled a sex offender for an assault that someone else committed. Or that Liu was 16 at the time, a recent Chinese immigrant who spoke little English. And there’s no mention of the good that he has done for his community since his release on parole in 2017. To the California Department of Justice, which publishes the database, Liu is just another one of the state’s 106,000 registered sex offenders, someone the public should fear and be warned of.

The restrictions and stigma of the sex offender label are “suffocating,” Liu told The Appeal. “People just assume I’m a monster.” On some days, he said, “I wake up in the morning and I look at this [GPS monitor] on my ankle, and it just sends a chill through my body that the system is doing this to me.”

Liu’s story is the product of an expansive sex offender registry law that advocates and experts say has ballooned California’s registry beyond the point of any use to the public or to law enforcement. In California, convictions for any one of a long list of offenses—ranging from indecent exposure to rape—trigger the same lifetime registration requirement. Liu’s status also reflects the enormous power of prosecutors to determine who gets labeled a “sex offender.” In Liu’s case, the prosecutors’ decision to charge him with “aiding and abetting” a sexual assault he took no part in made him as susceptible to that label and its consequences as if he had committed the assault himself.

I think it is unfair, I think it is wrong.

Judge LaDoris Cordell Superior Court of California (retired)

Critics of California’s sex offender registry include the Superior Court judge who imposed Liu’s prison sentence in 1999. Now retired, Judge LaDoris Cordell recently told The Appeal that she was powerless to avoid the registration requirement for Liu but thinks it’s inappropriate in his case. “I have very strong feelings about this lifetime registration as a sex offender,” she said. “I think it violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. I think it’s cruel and unusual punishment as it applies to juveniles. If you label a juvenile with lifetime registration, I think it is unfair, I think it is wrong. I think that the law should be changed.”

In the spring of 1997, Simon Liu, then 16, was struggling as a new student at Oakland Tech High School. He had moved with his family from China to the United States about a year before, and was living in a small Oakland apartment with his parents and younger sister. Simon spoke little English and was functionally illiterate. Unable to understand his teachers or the assigned reading, he started to skip classes. His small social circle included only the few other students who spoke Cantonese.  

In addition to language and cultural barriers, the year had been marked by trauma. Simon recounts one occasion when he and his friends were interrupted while playing basketball outside after school: “A masked gunman walked up and blew my friend’s brains out.” At home, Simon suffered both verbal and physical abuse from his father, who in fits of rage would throw him out of the house for days at a time, he said, sending him in search of somewhere to stay.

One of those places was a home rented by four older men he estimates to have been in their 20s or 30s. Simon’s friends told him they could play video games at the house, and that the men who lived there would buy them food and rent them movies. Simon admired the men; they had money and cars, and they provided him with a long sought-after sense of security and belonging.

But the hospitality came at a price. In May 1997, the men planned a home invasion robbery and enlisted Simon and four of his friends—all between 15 and 17 years old—to pull it off, according to court documents and parole hearing testimony from multiple participants, including Simon. The men selected a target home in San Jose; provided the teens with duct tape, gloves, and two handguns; taught them how to bind the hands and feet of people in the house; and drove them to the home in late evening darkness.

Once there, a 15-year-old girl knocked on the door to gain entry, and five boys, including Simon, forced their way inside. Simon briefly searched the home for valuables and bound at least one person’s hands and feet with duct tape before his friend Thien Nguyen handed him an unloaded gun. From that point on, Simon remained downstairs, standing watch over four people. While Simon was downstairs, 15-year-old Loc Duong found a 23-year-old pregnant woman in an upstairs bedroom. Duong assaulted the woman by groping her, digitally penetrating her vagina, and ordering her to perform oral sex before another one of the crew intervened.

The teenage robbers fled to the waiting getaway cars with over $20,000 worth of cash, jewelry, and stereo equipment. For his part in the robbery, Simon received some new clothes he thinks were purchased with the stolen money. During his parole hearing in 2016, Simon explained why he agreed to participate, if not for financial gain. “Because I will fit in,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen as weak or worthless.”

Simon’s arrest came in the midst of national panic over “superpredator” children—the false theory that a wave of remorseless young people would soon unleash widespread violence in American cities—and it’s easy now to see how such irrational fear drove his prosecution. The Santa Clara County district attorney’s office prosecuted Simon and at least two of the other youths, including Duong, as adults, and charged Simon with sexual assault on the theory that he aided and abetted the crime.

Simon’s probation report, written while he was in jail before a “suitability” hearing on whether he should be tried as an adult, argued that he was not “fit and proper” for juvenile court. It also described him not as a vulnerable teenager desperate to fit in, but as a hardened career criminal who was a poor candidate for rehabilitation. Simon’s “lifestyle . . . reveals a high degree of criminal sophistication for his age,” the report states, noting that instead of attending school he “focused his lifestyle in pursuing associations with others who are equally, or more, criminally sophisticated.”

Confused by the law and limited by language, Simon pleaded no contest and received a 26-year prison sentence along with a permanent sex offender designation. The only adult charged, Jackie Wu, who planned the robbery and then waited in the car outside, received an eight-year sentence.

Simon’s sexual assault charge rested on the account of one witness, the 15-year-old girl who helped the boys enter the house, who said that Simon and Duong discussed the assault beforehand. Since he knew it would happen, the prosecution argued, he had sufficient intent to be liable. Simon’s counsel questioned the credibility of that statement at the time. And in the years since, Duong himself has twice testified in parole hearings—once in May 2015 and again in March 2019—that no such conversation took place, exonerating Simon while at the same admitting to the assault in detail and incriminating himself.

I did not even think about the sexual assault of that lady.

Simon Liu speaking at his 1999 sentencing

Simon has always maintained ignorance of the assault until after it happened. At his sentencing in 1999, he explained in broken English, “I did not even think about the sexual assault of that lady. . . . Things that this attorney say is not true.” Last year, he took and passed a polygraph exam on the issue.

Simon Liu is a registered sex offender because someone else committed a sexual assault. No one has ever disputed that. But California law doesn’t account for such nuance.

California is one of four states with mandatory lifetime registration for sex offenders, regardless of the nature of the offense. It now has the largest registry in the country with about 106,000 names, a population that, as of 2014, included 865 people who hadn’t committed a sex crime in at least 55 years, according to the California Sex Offender Management Board.

The board, which oversees the registry, has said that the list has grown too large to allow either the public or law enforcement to identify offenders who pose an actual risk of reoffending, rendering it “counterproductive to improving public safety.”

Registration also triggers other requirements. Chelsea’s Law, passed in 2010, requires all registrants to undergo at least one year of intensive sex offender treatment; Jessica’s Law, passed in 2006, requires lifetime GPS monitoring for all felony registrants, even after they complete parole; and in 2004, an update to Megan’s Law created the online database of sex offenders that includes Liu’s photo and list of convictions.

Liu’s mandatory treatment involved a yearlong program for “high-risk sex offenders” with group and individual sessions two times a week. He said he was told there that he should be grateful for his years in prison and for the legally mandated treatment. One clinician told him that, in prison, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation “gave you the opportunity to sit down, be still, and process.” And now “they’re giving you the gift of treatment.” Liu said he still must return to the program once every three months for “maintenance.”

The way California uses the registry, it makes registration futile and absolutely ridiculous.

Nicole Pittman Impact Justice

Nicole Pittman, an expert on sex offender registration laws at Impact Justice in Oakland, said the expansive scope of California’s registry and the restrictions it levies on offenders are “hugely problematic” and give people a false sense of security. “The way California uses the registry, it makes registration futile and absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “The state [board] knows it, the legislature knows it, and that’s why they’ve started to make some reforms.”

California is transitioning to a three-tiered sex offender registry system that will take full effect in January 2021 and allow registrants under Tiers 1 and 2, the less serious tiers, to petition a court to remove their names from the registry after 10 and 20 years, respectively. But this reform would not appear to help someone in Liu’s position, whose conviction for aiding and abetting under Penal Code 264.1 is among the many listed offenses that trigger lifetime registration under Tier 3.

In prison, Liu earned his GED, excelled at college courses, and learned computer programming. He currently works as a software engineer at a bookkeeping firm in San Francisco and does web development on the side. He also volunteers with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, assisting people recently released from prison with re-entering their communities.

Simon Liu and his sister Courtesy of Simon Liu

But there is little reprieve from the sex offense scarlet letter. “Your life is completely dominated by the fact that you’re a sex offender,” Liu told The Appeal. The intrusions are both big and small: The sheriff’s deputies who show up unannounced at his home or his sister’s home, scaring her children. The incessant voicemails while he’s at work if his ankle monitor isn’t working. The personal embarrassment and shame attached to every new social interaction.

“You might want to ask someone out, but the first thing you have to tell them is, ‘I’m a registered sex offender.’ You go to a job interview, the first thing you have to tell people is, ‘I’m a registered sex offender.’ And you worry that if you don’t say something and someone finds out, they’ll think [you’re] hiding something.”

Liu plans to petition Governor Gavin Newsom for a full pardon, and hopes Newsom looks beyond the charges to understand his story. “I want him to know that I made a bad choice as a kid, and did the wrong thing, but I’m not a sex offender,” he said. “Please take that off me and let me live a normal life. I’ll be more productive than if I’m just thrown away and labeled. And I’ve proven that.”

He has an ally in the former judge who sent him to prison. “I think it’s outrageous, particularly with this kid, who didn’t even assault anybody,” Judge Cordell told The Appeal. “I’m not excusing his behavior, but he served 21 years. That’s enough.”