The courthouse hallway was so crowded, the deputy stood on a bench to shout instructions: No cellphones inside the courtroom. No video outside.
The hall hummed with the voices of more than 150 Chinese students, who had formed two lines that snaked far beyond the courtroom's doors. Confused attorneys slowly pushed their way through. "What's happening?" one asked. "What is this?"
The students — some in dark suits, others in T-shirts of their colleges — had come from USC,
The 24-year-old Chinese graduate student was killed last month.
Four teenagers pleaded not guilty Tuesday to murder charges in connection with Ji's July 24 beating just blocks from USC. They stood in a packed courtroom where onlookers sat shoulder to shoulder.
The defendants — Jonathan Del Carmen, 19; Andrew Garcia, 18; Alberto Ochoa, 17; and Alejandra Guerrero, 16 — were dressed in baggy jail-issue clothes. Del Carmen kept his hands in his pockets. Garcia's were chained to his waist.
One by one, the pleas were entered. Judge Renee Korn ordered the four to be held without bail until their next hearing, on Sept. 12.
Prosecutors allege that Garcia, Ochoa and Guerrero used a bat to beat Ji, who was walking home from a study group about 12:45 a.m. Evidence indicates that Ji tried to escape his attackers, only to be assaulted again, sources said.
Ji, suffering head injuries, managed to make it the short distance to his 30th Street apartment. A roommate discovered his body a few hours later.
Police described the attack as an attempted robbery, one of two that investigators say were attempted by the suspects that night. Prosecutors allege that after beating Ji, the teens drove to Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey, where Ochoa, Garcia and Guerrero robbed a woman. They also tried to rob a man, prosecutors say, but he managed to escape and flag down officers who were on patrol nearby.
Garcia, Ochoa and Guerrero have been charged with second-degree robbery, attempted second-degree robbery and assault with a deadly weapon in the Dockweiler incident. Detectives believe Del Carmen was driving the car they used that night.
A 14-year-old girl was also detained near Dockweiler and was charged with seven felonies in connection with that incident. Her name has not been released because of her age.
Prosecutors have yet to decide whether they will seek the death penalty against Del Carmen and Garcia. Although Ochoa and Guerrero have been charged as adults, if convicted they face a maximum of life in prison without parole because of their ages.
Attorneys representing Del Carmen, Garcia and Ochoa declined to comment after Tuesday's hearing, as did relatives of the defendants who attended the arraignment. Only Garcia's mother spoke to a reporter.
"All I can say is I'm trusting in the Lord," Rosalie Garcia told The Times.
So many people showed up on behalf of Ji that not all found seats in the courtroom. About 70 students were left outside, waiting for news. When the arraignment was over, a few asked reporters what would happen next.
"I'm going to be here every time," said Sumo Liu, a classmate of Ji's. "I want to see justice for my friend."
Standing next to Liu was Haolin Tong, Ji's roommate during their first year at USC together, as graduate students in electrical engineering. "I have nothing possibly more important to do than be here today," he said.
Tong, who was back home in China when Ji was killed, said Ji's parents called him about 4 a.m. that day, pleading with him to try to reach their son. University officials had just called them with the news, and they couldn't believe what they were hearing.
"I thought maybe he was still in the library, in the basement where there is no signal," Tong said. "When I found out later what actually happened …." He couldn't finish the sentence.
After the hearing, the students crowded into elevators and stairwells as they made their way to a news conference. They huddled behind a spokesman for Ji's family as cameras flashed.
"Don't smile," they told one another in Chinese. "This is serious."
Many held poster-sized photos of Ji and of his parents sobbing outside an Alhambra funeral home. Three held signs that read simply, "Justice for Xinran Ji."