A Santa Ana woman pleaded not guilty Wednesday in the beating death of a 23-year-old nightclub patron who was hit and kicked during a violent altercation in Santa Ana's historic district.

Vanesa Tapia Zavala, 25, is being held on $1-million bail and faces a single murder charge in the death of Kim Pham, a Westminster resident who'd been coaxed by friends into going out for the evening.

Zavala's attorney said his client never hit Pham and was actually struck and knocked to the ground herself during the fight outside The Crosby, a trendy club in the city's popular downtown area.

Defense attorney Kenneth Reed said Zavala went to the nightclub with her boyfriend and other friends.

During the altercation early Saturday, Reed said Zavala lost her cellphone, which police later found. Reed said he is unsure if that's the only piece of evidence police have against his client.

"Your day is fine, your life is fine. You have a 5-year-old son, you go out one night on a Friday night with your boyfriend. Then your life is turned upside down and you find out someone is killed," Reed said, referring to his client.

"No matter what the situation is, you're going to be devastated," he said. "No matter how you look at it, and that's how she feels."

Zavala, who was arrested Monday, is one of five people suspected of attacking Pham outside the nightclub. A $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the beating.

The incident was captured on video, some of which has been reviewed by police. Detectives are asking witnesses who saw or recorded what happened to come forward.

During a community meeting Tuesday, state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) was among those who commented on the attack, calling it "brutal and senseless."

"The fact that you had a lot of witnesses, that's what's really troublesome," Correa said. "How many people actually stepped in and tried to stop it?"

Pham, a recent Chapman University graduate who aspired to become a writer and talk-show host, was declared brain-dead shortly after she was admitted to the hospital and was pronounced dead Tuesday after being taken off life support.

Police have not said what prompted the argument, but Pham's friends said it may have started after she accidentally stepped in front of a camera as a group of people posed for a photo.

adolfo.flores@latimes.com