When Antoinette Brown logged into Facebook on Tuesday night, she found a message from a friend in China. He had shared the news that three UCLA basketball players had been arrested for shoplifting at a Louis Vuitton store outside of Shanghai. As she stared at the screen, she started to cry. She wondered how much longer she would have to wait for her son to be set free.
Wendell Brown is never far from Antoinette's thoughts. She raised him as a single mother and watched as he became an All-State linebacker at Martin Luther King (Detroit) High, a starter at Ball State and a professional football player in the CFL and Europe. After his playing days were through, he chased coaching jobs in Asia. In August 2015, he left Michigan for Chongqing, a major city in southwest China, to coach with the Dockers, a fledgling American football team there.
During his year abroad, Wendell had a standing phone call each night with Antoinette at 10 p.m. in Detroit, which worked out to be 10 a.m. in Chongqing. Last September, Antoinette was elated when Wendell told her he'd be coming home before the end of the year. Then, near the end of that same month, he missed one of their phone calls. When he missed a second night—with no messages in between—she became alarmed. On the third day, a friend called from Wendell's phone with terrible news.
Wendell had been celebrating a friend's birthday at a bar when, according to Wendell, a belligerently drunk Chinese man asked if they could drink together. When Wendell declined, the man began throwing beer bottles at him. Wendell defended himself but didn’t put his hands on his attacker. But when the police arrived, they arrested only Wendell. It took more than nine months for Wendell to get a trial, and four months after its conclusion, he is still awaiting a verdict (if convicted he could face up to 10 years in prison). He's been behind bars for nearly 14 months. During that time, he has been unable to talk on the phone with any of his family, including his 10-year-old son, Wendell Jr., who lives in Florida with his mother. His communication with the U.S. is limited to letters.
"When I saw what happened with those UCLA players," Antoinette says, "I thought, 'Oh my God, these families are about to go through hell.'"
Those UCLA basketball players—LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley—were arrested early Wednesday morning in Hangzhou, reportedly for stealing sunglasses from a luxury store near their hotel. They had been preparing to play an exhibition game against Georgia Tech on Friday. Instead of practicing, they spent several hours being questioned by police before being released on bail. They've been barred from leaving their hotel. Such an infraction would be unlikely to result in jail time for first-time offenders in the United States, but experts in Chinese law caution that the difference between the two nations' criminal justice systems is stark.
"We'll see very quickly how this UCLA case is going to play out," says Benjamin Liebman, the director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia University. "There are a few ways it can be handled: First, the police can choose to deal with it administratively, which could mean just a couple of days in detention or a fine. Second, it could be considered criminally, and that could result in longer detention or deportation. Third, it's conceivable the prosecution would drop the case entirely. But if it goes into the formal prosecutorial process, guilt is almost assured. The prosecutors have the discretion to drop cases, but once it goes to trial, you almost never see a verdict of not guilty."
A Thursday morning report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicated that the players are facing 20 days under house arrest in their hotel followed by a ban from the country. That outcome would be considered an administrative punishment because it never left the authority of the police; it would also be the most expeditious resolution.
"My expectation would be, once this is resolved, that these young men would quite promptly get on a plane and leave the country," says Maggie Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall. "I would expect they probably wouldn't be in a rush to come back [to China]. Thinking more politically, I do not think that China would like to stretch this situation out for much longer. It's hard to see the benefit from that."
The Chinese criminal code allows for prison sentences of up to one year for thefts from approximately $150 to approximately $4,500. For amounts from $4,500 to $45,000, punishments can increase to 3-4 years or more. It is still too early to say definitively if the case is being handled administratively or criminally, and thus it's unclear if the three will face any prison time. But for players who are considered borderline NBA prospects, the long-term financial ramification of not being able to play professionally in China would be severe. "I think it's premature to start speculating whether some time down the line they would be able to get back in," Lewis says. "Bans don't tend to be ironclad."
For Wendell Brown, the journey through China's criminal justice system was full of unexpected and unwelcome surprises. For instance, those accused of crimes in China can be detained for 37 days before being formally arrested. There is also no right to a speedy trial. When a case does go to court, Chinese prosecutors boast a 99.9 percent conviction rate, primarily because guilt is already assumed once the trial phase is reached.
Though Wendell has steadfastly maintained he's innocent, experts say that is likely not helping his case. An admission of guilt in China, as in the United States, can lead to more lenient sentencing. Unlike the United States, though, those accused of violent crimes in China are expected to make financial restitution to their victims as part of the criminal punishment. For her part, Antoinette believes that her son was targeted because he was believed to be a wealthy athlete. She says her son's accuser asked for $100,000 to make the case go away. Antoinette, who is a hairdresser, couldn't afford anything close to that. She set up a GoFundMe page for Wendell, but only received $3,550.
An advantage that Ball, Hill and Riley have over Brown is publicity. Ball is the younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, and their family is the subject of a Facebook reality TV series, Ball in the Family. Additionally, President Donald Trump arrived in China as part of his two-week tour of Asia on Wednesday morning. "I'm not a political scientist, but it's easy to see the pressure is there," says Kam Wong, an associate law professor at Xavier and a former Inspector of Police in Hong Kong. "The unique thing about the president being there is it's now international, and China wants to show that it respects rule of law. At the same time, it has to show it doesn't treat foreigners differently than locals. My hope is that they'll take the middle ground and give them a light discipline."
It's possible that the entire event is a mix-up and the players broke no law at all. But even assuming the accusations are true, experts—Wong, Liebman and Michigan law professor Nicholas Howson—are cautiously optimistic about the UCLA players' chances of receiving administrative, rather than criminal, punishments. They stressed, though, that so much about the case is unclear and that it's too soon to speculate broadly. Wendell's final punishment is also difficult to predict, but his range of outcomes is somewhat restricted given that he has already stood trial.
"Not guilty is unheard of," Wong says. "American people think the systems will be the same. The Chinese government doesn't function that way. When they reach a trial, they believe that the investigation is already over, and they're really only talking about how punishment will be rendered. We don't understand that. It's more like the French inquisition there."
Antoinette says that Wendell and his lawyers proved his innocence, and even that one of the witnesses against her son eventually recanted. But still Wendell waits in jail. So Antoinette continues her work here—pouring her heart into letters to keep up her son's spirits, and spending countless hours in conversations with reporters, lawyers, lawmakers and diplomats. She's exhausted from restless days and sleepless nights, but she still searches every day for reasons to hope for a happy outcome. Could the key to freedom for her son come from three teenagers making a silly mistake before a college basketball game?
"I asked him in the last letter if he was staying strong," Antoinette says. "He said, 'Mama, I'm strong because you're strong.' We both know the truth will prevail."
Until then, she waits for the only message she hopes to receive.