When Ny Nourn entered Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the world, there was every reason to believe she would never walk free on American soil again.
She was just 21, and had been sentenced to “life without parole” for her part in a hauntingly brutal murder – a part she was forced into. Even if, at some distant date, a successful appeal commuted that sentence, her conviction made Nourn deportable – so when she had served her time, she was likely to be transported to another prison and ultimately to Cambodia, the country of her parents’ birth, a country she had never set foot in.
Given all this, seeing her now via Zoom in her San Francisco home, smiling, fast talking, squeezing me into her absolutely packed schedule, is a miracle. Nourn, now 40, is not only free, but a ferocious critic of the US criminal justice system, and a fierce advocate on behalf of female prisoners and immigrants.
Since her 2017 release, she has spoken at universities, on debating panels and talkshows; she has testified at Congress and the California state capitol. She has given a Ted Talk. “When I share my story, people often say that it’s unbelievable; that it seems more like a movie; that it doesn’t sound real,” says Nourn. But in truth, similar versions are being played out across the US on a daily basis, and most people trapped in that trajectory through poverty, violence, prison and deportation will barely be seen and never be known. This is why Nourn keeps talking. “When I came out of prison, I asked: who else would be fighting for the people I left behind if not me?”
Nourn’s story begins in crisis. She was born in a Thai refugee camp. Her Cambodian mother was 18, and had separated from her family and fled the country on foot, to escape the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime responsible for the deaths of 2 million Cambodians. She met Nourn’s father, another Cambodian, at the camp, though he had left before Nourn turned one.
Her memories of those early years are, she says, only “sad ones”. “The camp was huge and we were in a hut. I was always hungry. My mum would leave each day to work in the rice fields, and I just remember always needing her, and her not being there.”
When Nourn was five, they left for the US – a family sponsored them – and settled in San Diego. Here, Nourn’s mother met and married Nourn’s stepfather, a refugee from Vietnam. Her brother and sister were born there.
Nourn clearly recalls the gradual escalation of abuse at home, as her stepfather first romanced her mother, then shouted at her, then smashed furniture, then became physically violent. Many times, Nourn saw him punch her mother, kick her and chase her with a knife. She witnessed him rape her. (“I remember her telling me to shut the door, and I could hear her beg and plead.”)
All these years on, she doesn’t want to demonise him – this effort to understand and forgive is a recurring theme with Nourn. “Thinking back now, I can see he was under a lot of pressure trying to take care of the family,” she says. “He was young, we lived in one-bedroom housing in impoverished communities in a country that didn’t really accept us or offer resources to help. He worked long hours as a mechanic, then came home and drank and smoked, and didn’t take care of himself.”
At the time, though, Nourn only knew that she wasn’t safe, and had nowhere to turn. “I was so lost, so scared,” she says. “I heard my mum talking about it to her friends, trying to get support, but they’d say: ‘He’s a good man. He’s supporting you.’ There was nowhere to go. The lesson we got from the Cambodian community was that the police weren’t there to help – and in my own experience, years later, that turned out to be true.”
So Nourn managed it as best she could. At school, she had few friends because she kept so much hidden. At home, when violence erupted, she would tell her brother to go to his room and put on his headphones. In her mind, her only aim was to get away as soon as she could. “I had no plans,” she says. “I didn’t want to ‘be a doctor’ or ‘go to college’, I just wanted to leave the house as soon as possible and alleviate the pain and trauma.” As a teenager, she had several boyfriends. “I was looking for love, validation, escape, and that’s how at 17 I ended up meeting Ron.”
She wishes she had seen the red flags. “He reminded me so much of my stepfather,” she says, with the briefest, saddest of smiles. She had met Ron Barker in an online chatroom, and he’d told her he was in his 20s. When she snuck out to see him, she found someone much older: 37, Vietnamese, also struggling, with broken English, no real job and – unknown to Nourn – a wife, a child and a baby on the way.
“At first, he put me on a pedestal. He said he loved me, and that one day I’d be his wife,” she says. “It was everything I wanted to hear. Then, over the weeks, he was saying: ‘I don’t want to share you’. ‘If you’re not at school, you’re with me.’ He told me what to wear, how to do my makeup and said he’d always be watching me, that he was part of the mafia – I didn’t even know what the mafia was.”
By December 1998, just four months into the relationship, Barker began seeing less of her. She now knows it was because his baby had been born and he was otherwise occupied. “I sensed he was cheating. I was young, 18, and I hadn’t known him long.” Nourn had an after-school job as a telemarketer for a dating site called Perfect Match. On 23 December, she went on a date with her supervisor, David Stevens.
Nourn now calls Stevens “my victim”. “I didn’t know him. He was 38, even older than Ron, but he seemed like a gentle soul,” she says. “I think he had a good heart, and I was willing to grab on to anyone willing to rescue me.” She met Stevens once, had sex with him and returned home late to find Barker parked outside her house.
He wound down his window and asked where she had been. Nourn told him: “Walmart.” “This late?” “Yes, it’s 24-hour shopping.” ‘What did you buy?’ Silence. Barker instructed Nourn to get into his car, and here, Nourn admitted that she’d had sex with her boss. “He was hitting the steering wheel and calling me names. I was crying, hysterical, apologising.” Barker drove to a secluded area and told her to get into the back seat. “He said: ‘I’m going to treat you like the slut you are,’” says Nourn. “Essentially, he raped me, right? I was begging, [saying] ‘No’, trying to push him off.”
Afterwards, Barker told Nourn to direct him to Stevens’ apartment. When they arrived – Nourn still crying hysterically – Barker told her to “fix herself up” and go inside. She was to tell Stevens that she had got a flat tyre while driving home and ask him to give her a lift to her car and help fix it. She did this, Stevens agreed and as they set out in his Chrysler, Barker flagged them down, pretending to be Nourn’s brother. He sat at the back and directed Stevens to a deserted business area, then told him to stop the car.
Did Nourn have any sense about was going to happen? “I remember my whole body shaking, [I was] just thinking”: ‘This isn’t real,’” she says, “I thought the worst that would happen was a confrontation – that Ron would beat him up, and that would be it. Life would go on.” Instead, Barker pointed a gun to Stevens’ head and asked: ‘How does it feel sleeping with someone else’s girlfriend?’ “I remember David saying: ‘This is not cool, we don’t need to do this …’ then two shots going off.” Nourn sighs. She pauses. “Then I was screaming and screaming. I smelled the gun, the metal. David was slumped, Ron was yelling in my ear and my ears were ringing. I thought he was going to kill me right then.”
Barker told Nourn that he wouldn’t kill her if she did what he told her. If she didn’t – and if she told anyone what had happened that night – he’d kill her and her family. He set fire to the car with Stevens’ body in it. “I did this for you,” he told Nourn at the end of the night. “You’re clean now. You’re mine.”
“I remember getting home, scrubbing myself in the bathtub, wishing it was all a nightmare,” says Nourn. She dreamed about it for years – that she was back in Stevens’ apartment, being chased and stabbed by Barker, or just seeing recurring images of flames and ash. “I really blamed myself,” she says. “The shame that I should have protected my victim, that I should never have gone out with him, that I should have known better or seen the red flags.”
The murder went unsolved, and Nourn lived in total terror of defying Barker. She had always felt isolated, but now she was utterly alone, trapped, silent, surviving from one day to the next. She remained with Barker, even moving in with him and his family when he wanted her to. (He told his wife, who was also completely under his control, that Nourn was the daughter of a friend and needed somewhere to stay.) Barker was now consistently violent.
Twice she became pregnant and twice he forced her to have an abortion. He once drove Nourn to a ravine, made her kneel and held a gun to her head in a mock execution. He broke into her family home, watched her siblings sleep, and told Nourn he was deciding whether to slit their throats. “He used to say: ‘I should have killed you that night I killed him,’ and a part of me wished he had.”
In 2001, at 20, Nourn found her first friends – two colleagues at her job with a mortgage company. They noticed her bruises, offered help – and she told them about the murder. They urged her to call the police, assuring her that she’d be protected. Nourn made the call, and officers arrived at her work to take a statement. Then they took her back to the police station for a more “in-depth” interview … which quickly turned into an interrogation. It lasted about 10 hours.
Both Barker and Nourn were charged with murder. “The prosecutor didn’t care about the background, the violence, my young age,” says Nourn. “Now I see that we were two Asian defendants accused of killing a white man. Looking back, I had no chance.”
New evidence emerged of Barker’s murderous jealousy – before the trial, from prison, her lawyer had to step down after being informed that Barker was attempting to hire someone to kill him, because Barker felt Nourn and her lawyer were becoming too close. However, the judge ruled this evidence inadmissible, saying it had no relevance. Instead, at the trial, Nourn was depicted as a bloodthirsty femme fatale who had “lured” Stevens into a trap. (She would later become the subject of documentaries such as Killer Couples, which ran with the theme.) Barker and Nourn were found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The judge said that Nourn was “more culpable” than Barker “because she let this mad dog off the leash”.
Until this point, Nourn’s life had been a series of horrifying episodes – it was only when she began her sentence that she began to see the bigger picture. In the US (and here in the UK), female inmates are overwhelmingly survivors of trauma and abuse, and from poor backgrounds. Black women in the US are three times more likely to be in prison than white women (in the UK, black women are more than twice as likely), and Latina women 69% more likely. Comparable statistics on Asian Pacific prisoners are scant. A 2016 report by the Vera Institute of Justice found that 77% of women in US prisons were survivors of intimate partner violence, and 86% had experienced sexual violence.
“At first, I didn’t want to make any friends. I just wanted to survive,” says Nourn, “but I ended up befriending people, then went to the battered women support group. I started hearing their stories, learning about their backgrounds.
“So many had lengthy sentences for actions that were a result of the violence they endured – actions where they were protecting their children from their abuser or because they were in life-and-death situations. I realised: ‘Wow. I’m not the only one.’ What we didn’t need was incarceration. We needed support.”
In prison, Nourn accessed therapy. “My counsellor walked me through the night of the murder,” she says. “I didn’t like it, but it helped me accept that it wasn’t my fault. The only way to heal was to forgive myself and forgive Ron, too.
“For years, I wanted him to suffer, to die, but I had to let it go and try to understand his background. I think he’s a sociopath. He had no friends, he was quick to anger. He came to the US as a refugee, and struggled to assimilate. He didn’t graduate from high school. It helps to think about why he is the way he is. He did have to be held accountable for what he did – but I hope he can get the healing he needs.”
In her own case, Nourn appealed on the grounds of “battered woman syndrome” and her sentence was reduced to 15 years. It was only as she neared the end of it that a fellow inmate told her: ‘You know you’ll be deported, right?’ “I didn’t understand,” says Nourn. “I reached out to the civil rights organisation Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), which confirmed that, yes, even though I’d been born in a refugee camp and had permanent residency, my conviction made me deportable.”
The Criminal Alien Programme, which allows for the permanent removal of immigrants convicted of certain crimes, is now responsible for between two-thirds and three-quarters of non-border deportations in the US, according to the American Immigration Council.
Eligibility expanded through the 90s, from immigrants who commit serious or violent crimes to include those who commit minor ones, such as shoplifting, drug possession and turnstile jumping. On the day of Nourn’s “release”, she was collected by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials who shackled her arms, her waist and legs, then transported her to Yuba county jail, in Marysville, California, to await deportation.
This period, says Nourn, was the hardest of all. “At least in prison, my friends were there. I could go to work, go out in the yard,” she says. “In Yuba, you’re lucky if you can go outside every other day. Just seeing other women like me, also survivors … some had been there two years, and there was this hopelessness. Every time you went to a hearing, it was postponed. No one could afford an attorney. Seeing all this suffering … it weighed on me.”
In Nourn’s case, a campaign by a coalition of groups including AAAJ and Survived and Punished, which crowdsourced a $10,000 (£7,000) bond for her, led to her release in November 2017. In June 2020, she was officially pardoned by California’s state governor, Gavin Newsom.
Her first days of freedom – she moved straight to San Francisco – didn’t feel real. “I couldn’t believe it, I was walking on eggshells, I felt so scared,” she says. “Was ICE going to come back and re-arrest me? Was someone from Ron’s family watching me? I was always looking behind me, really paranoid.
“Then I realised, with the community I was building, the friends I was making, I could take life one day at a time and enjoy the simple things. Going out to get a coffee. A walk on the beach. Going to the restroom without fearing a guard is going to walk by and see me. Choosing whether or not to close a door.”
In some ways, unsurprisingly, Nourn was tempted to fade into a “normal life” and disappear from public view. “A part of me did want to do that,” she says. “To remove myself from anything related to trauma, abuse and incarceration. But there are so many others and who else would be in a better position to help advocate for their freedom?” On her release, the AAAJ offered her a job – she now works for them full-time as a community advocate. She also organises for Survived and Punished, a charity that campaigns to free female prisoners who were themselves victims of domestic and sexual violence.
One of her early campaign cases was for Liyah Birru, an Ethiopian facing deportation after being convicted of a felony assault on her husband. Birru had met the former marine Silas D’Aloisio when he was stationed in Addis Ababa. They moved to rural California, where Birru said D’Aloisio quickly became violent and abusive, although he denied the allegations. Birru says that during one such incident, she took D’Aloisio’s gun and fired it at him, believing it wasn’t loaded. D’Aloisio survived, but Birru was convicted, served four years, and was then detained for deportation. The Free Liyah campaign – which gathered more than 35,000 signatures – helped secure her release on bond and there is an ongoing campaign to get her pardoned.
Nourn’s main message is that people can’t be neatly categorised. Their stories aren’t simple, so the solutions can’t be, either. Immigrants can’t be separated into “the good ones” (the honest, hard-working model minority) and “the bad ones” (whom it’s OK to kick out). The same applies to the criminal justice system. “We have a system that says: ‘Protect the victims and survivors, and lock away the perpetrators,’” she says.
“But what happens when the victim and survivor is also classed as a perpetrator?
“We have to challenge ourselves and think about how we hold the person who did harm accountable, but at the same time uplift their humanity,” she says. “How is incarcerating people and deporting them going to make the world a better place? It’s not transformative. It doesn’t look at root causes. There must be better ways.”
When it comes to her future, Nourn isn’t yet sure what she will do. “Maybe one day I’ll have my own nonprofit organisation or domestic violence shelter. I may work towards a PhD – who knows,” she says. (Nourn is also in the final stages of an undergraduate sociology degree from San Francisco State University.) Whatever path she chooses, her 10-, 16- or 21-year-old self would surely be staggered.
“That person was so quiet, so alone, so scared, doing what she could to survive and blaming herself,” says Nourn. “She would never have thought she could go to college, have a career, be an advocate.
“I’ve learned that if you want to see change happen, you have to be part of it. Being vocal is not wrong. I was silent for the majority of my life – but not any more.”