Chinese students at the University of Southern California (USC) are calling for the heaviest penalties to be handed out to the killers of two graduate students near the college campus, although the two chief suspects have yet to stand trial.
Electronic engineering students Qu Ming and Wu Ying, both 23, were gunned down during a suspected robbery while sitting in Qu's parked BMW not far from the college campus, sparking a lawsuit from their families against the college over its website's claims about the safety of its neighborhood.
Responding to recent media reports suggesting that, if they are found guilty in a trial that is scheduled to begin on June 25, Bryan Barnes and Javier Bolden would "probably" receive sentences of around 20 years, Chinese students at the college are saying this is not enough.
David Li, one of the protest organizers, said the college's association of Chinese students was calling on people to sign banners which said: "Don't twist or warp matters: enforce the law impartially," and "Protect our Safety."
"We will start to collect signatures on campus but we are also joining forces with the [Chinese student associations in California and around the U.S.], so we hope everyone will take part," Li said.
Zheng Boren, a Los Angeles-based Chinese-American lawyer who is an alumnus of the college, said that 20 years would be too light a sentence for a crime that has prompted an uproar on the Chinese Internet over the safety aspects of studying overseas.
"According to U.S. law, if there are no special circumstances, the crime of armed assault resulting in death carries a minimum penalty of 25 years, and a maximum penalty of death," Zhen said.
Chinese students say they would find a relatively light jail term of 20 years "unacceptable."
"We wouldn't accept a sentence of 20 years," said Sun Qingqing, an overseas Chinese student at the Los Angeles community college. "They should get the death penalty, or whatever is the heaviest criminal punishment."
Students said they were concerned that judges might be tempted to lessen the sentences passed on the two African-American young men, should they be found guilty, because of racial sensitivities.
"I heard that this case touched on racial issues and a whole range of other issues, and that this meant that the two suspects would likely be given lighter sentences," said USC student Steven Zhang.
The students' campaign has met with a positive reaction on campus, and they plan to take it next to Los Angeles' Chinatown.
Study abroad safety
Meanwhile, Chinese-American lawyer Zhang Jun warned Chinese students thinking of studying overseas to maintain an awareness of safety issues.
"When choosing a school, don't just think about whether the teaching is good, you should also pay attention to the safety of the school's immediate environment," Zhang said.
"Also, your car, clothing and general appearance should be appropriate to local circumstances; if they stand out too much, they might attract attention," he said.
"Students studying overseas should always stay in touch with their local embassy or consulate, because they often run symposia on safety, and the information they give out will help you to maintain a high level of awareness of personal security."
Qu and Wu's families have sued USC over claims on its website that it is "ranked among the safest of U.S. universities and colleges, with one of the most comprehensive, proactive campus and community safety programs in the nation."
The families' lawyer, Alan Burton Newman, told the Los Angeles Times that the lawsuit alleges that the claims were inaccurate, and that the college "provided no patrolling" in the neighborhood where the shooting occurred.
After the killings, USC persisted with a "clearly misleading" portrayal of safety, reiterating in a letter to the campus community that crime "is low compared to other areas of Los Angeles," the paper quoted the lawsuit as saying.
USC lawyer Debra Wong Yang told the paper that while university was "deeply saddened" by the tragic attack, it saw it as "a random violent act not representative of the safety of USC or the neighborhoods around campus," adding that the college viewed the lawsuit as "baseless."
Reported by Xiao Rong for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.