The Dark Side of Expat Life: A Shanghai Experience
Expatriate life is often perceived as an extended holiday, filled with exotic culture, travel, and new experiences, with little awareness of the hidden dangers. Beyond the typical visa headaches, some expats experience far more serious legal issues. While expats are aware that legal procedures abroad differ from those back home, most are unequipped to navigate the maze of a foreign legal system. Some may unwittingly break a law or become snared when laws change without their knowledge. Others find themselves struggling to comprehend the law and to defend themselves in a system that is unfairly biased in favor of the accuser, leaving the accused with little recourse. While this darker side of expat life is rarely discussed, it can affect anyone living or traveling overseas, with life-changing effects.
In 2013, David “Dee” McMahon, a 31-year old American teacher living in Shanghai, was one such unfortunate expat. After almost 9 years in the city, he had a stable job, a serious, happy relationship with an expat American woman (who was also a teacher), and he enjoyed many of the perks of expat life: a good salary, a buoyant social life, and the buzz of a rapidly modernizing country. Suddenly, this life was pulled out from under his feet. On May 13, 2013, McMahon went to work and was apprehended by the PSB, China’s police force. He had been accused of abusing children in class.
Despite a lack of corroborating statements, physical proof, adult testimony, or any other sort of documentation, McMahon was charged and eventually convicted in a country with a conviction rate of 99.9 percent. The claims alleged that he had abused children in his busy kindergarten classroom, with 23 pupils and several other teachers present nearby. Outside of the small clique of intimately connected accusers, three of whom were children of employees of the prominent French multinational company Schneider Electric and one close friend of an accusing parent, no other students or adults at the school supported the claims.
After being detained by the police, McMahon’s life quickly became every expat’s worst nightmare. He was cast into a cell full of criminals in the most squalid conditions. He was isolated from the outside world, granted limited personal correspondence, no visits from family, and allowed only occasional meetings with lawyers and US consular officers. McMahon was held for more than six months in this detention center before ever being charged with a crime, and then five more months beyond that before being put on secret trial in April 2014. His family and the US consulate were barred from attending his trial, and the court allowed his defense only one witness, whose testimony was later completely dismissed. He filed an appeal which was heard in November 2014 and predictably failed. He is now being held in Shanghai’s Qingpu Foreign Prison.
The conviction of McMahon was entirely based on the testimonies of 6-year-old children. Two such accusers had been abused in the previous year during tutoring sessions in their home. That offender, Hector Orjuela, had been caught red-handed and is now serving a 30-year sentence in a US prison. In making accusations against McMahon, these children describe assaults uncannily similar to that which Orjuela had been found guilty of in a U.S court. However, this unlikely similarity was ignored and never considered by the court in McMahon’s case.
While trying to get a job with this family as a tutor in fall of 2012, Orjuela had mentioned his earlier employment at the same school, Lycee Francais de Shanghai, and had even claimed to be a friend of McMahon’s, hoping this would get him in the door. In April 2013, a psychologist working with these children contacted the school with concerns that the girls had been hugging McMahon too often. A month later, after McMahon had told the girls they should no longer hug him, their emotions escalated into an accusation of molestation.
These accusations against McMahon originated from the same family that had experienced the very real molestation by Orjuela in 2012. Believing there was a link between Orjuela and McMahon, the accusing parents then pressured the school, threatened teachers, held secretive meetings, and coerced other parents to make additional accusations. Two of the families who repeated the accusations against McMahon were employed by the father of two of the alleged victims.
One parent explained the pressure and the leading questioning demanded by the accusing parents: “An accusing parent told me that I had to tell my daughter that Mister Mac was a very bad guy, he seemed nice but in fact he was doing horrible things to children, that we knew what he had done to her.”
“They explained to us clearly that they wanted nine accusations because they believed that in China when you have nine accusations of child abuse, the culprit would get a death penalty, and they said they wanted the death penalty,” another family head said of the pressure that was being applied to parents. Although, ironically, it was untrue that capital punishment is used in such cases in China nowadays, this comment revealed the intensity of the hysteria and pressure.
Another said the accusing parents were doing everything they could to ensure that McMahon would be tried under Chinese law. “They absolutely did not want him to have any opportunity to be judged under US law,” she said. “An accuser’s father clearly explained to my husband that they were looking for more testimony and witnesses.” Under a different legal system, the numerous adults and children contradicting the allegations of a few 6-year-olds would have constituted enough reasonable doubt to have the charges dismissed.
President Xi Jinping enacted a judicial reform in November 2013, which aimed to promote transparency, fairness, protect human rights, and prevent injustice. Despite this reform, the Chinese court convicted McMahon under pressure from the French consulate, parents, and LFS. Under the Chinese judicial system, the responsibility is not with the accuser to prove guilt, but with the defendant to prove innocence. The police, prosecution, and judiciary are all under the control of the Communist Party, and their officers immediately face political and career risk in every case that they take on, and they can never appear to make a mistake. Unsurprisingly, with no separation of powers among these organs and with no independent judges, few defendants are exonerated.
Being in a French school and sharing American nationality with the convicted American child sex offender Orjuela exacerbated an already existing anti-American prejudice. LFS refused to provide documents needed for McMahon’s defense or to cooperate with his lawyers, even though LFS was aware of how vital this material was to the defense.
Afraid of damaging their reputation further because of the previous scandal with Orjuela, the school withdrew its initial support for McMahon. After all, LFS had employed Orjuela two years earlier when he had fled to China from the US as a fugitive suspected of child molestation. One worried parent said, “What I have seen is the attitude of some parents blaming aggressively the school for having recruited Dee. Without confirmation of any facts.” The school was guilty of not doing teacher background checks on Orjuela, an obvious necessity in a world with strict due diligence compliance requirements.
Almost 80% of McMahon’s pupils totally denied that any abuse had ever occurred. Some of his accusers claimed he had abused children during class time, even in front of other children. The testimonies of the other children in class simply do not support this claim.
One child had claimed she was molested while a teaching assistant sat just 10 feet away and did not notice. Another child claimed he was molested after school when all students and staff were preoccupied with dismissal. A week after she made an accusation, one of the children who instigated the accusations told a nurse that she had actually fabricated the whole story.
One family described their child’s response to hearing about the allegations as total incredulity. “Her instinctive child’s reaction at the time when she was 6 was one of sincere and total disbelief.” They also said their child was saddened and “very moved when hearing that Mr. Mac is still in prison”. Another parent explained that, “the back-to-school day, after spring break, was actually a sad day. She was bringing a drawing for Dee as a back to school gift. This attention was specific to Dee.”
Many expats and travelers abroad assume they can contact their embassy to get them out of any legal crisis, but officially most embassies can offer only a modest minimum of assistance.
For McMahon, the US Consulate said they would intervene only if his legal due process was violated. Yet, when presented with evidence of this actually happening, they backed down and refused to intervene in the Chinese legal proceedings. The US Consulate provided only the bare minimum of assistance to McMahon, acting as messenger and bringing him clothing and books. They never tackled the egregiously abusive injustices perpetrated upon McMahon.
Verdict and Aftermath
After an appeal and more than two years of uncertainty and anguish, the inevitable pre-determined final verdict came down upon McMahon on May 25, 2015. He was sentenced to 12 years in a Chinese prison. Life as he knew it was over.
The translated judgment document from the court itself contained many inaccuracies and discrepancies. After the verdict was read out in court, a veteran legal translator who worked throughout McMahon’s case said, “a lot of the evidence is dubious. After they grow up these children will likely admit to framing McMahon under pressure from their parents,” she said.
This is echoed in the flawed judgments and wrongful convictions catalogued by lawyer, detective, and professor He Jiahong of People’s University, China’s leading expert on wrongful convictions. In his scholarly book “Back from the Dead”, the centerpiece is a woman who returns to her village alive, two decades after she is believed to have been murdered and a young man executed for her killing.
McMahon has steadfastly maintained his innocence since his detention. In China’s prison system, inmates do not usually maintain innocence if they want to win an early release. Innocent prisoners often sign false confessions and feign “good behavior” to get out as soon as possible.
But McMahon has refused to sign any confession at all, despite this being a prerequisite to apply to participate in a points system to reduce the length of his sentence. Nearly everyone in his prison has signed a confession to their crimes, whether true or false. Prisoners are constantly pressured to confess in a carrot and stick system of reward and punishment.
McMahon’s lawyers have recently filed a further appeal in his case. The very act of appealing from prison disqualifies McMahon from joining in the sentence reduction system.
What happened to McMahon could happen to any traveler or expat. Worldwide, there are many cases of miscarried justice and wrongful convictions, both among locals and foreigners. Nobody is safe from this kind of disaster in Shanghai, a city where numerous such miscarriages of justice and failures of the rule of law have occurred. Ordinary people without power and influence can get caught up in the jaws of unfamiliar legal systems, years of their lives stolen away in an instant. Expats and travelers should prepare themselves for the legal risks that may arise before they leave home, and protect themselves appropriately.
The “Free McMahon Campaign” is led by friends, relatives, well-wishers and opponents of injustice, and is working to prove McMahon’s innocence and to obtain his just release from an unjust incarceration.
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To find out more about the Dee McMahon case, go to FreeDee.org.