Two Santa Ana women were ordered Tuesday to stand trial on murder charges in the beating death of a 23-year-old aspiring journalist outside a popular nightclub.
Vanesa Tapia Zavala and Candace Marie Brito are accused of killing Kim Pham during a furious altercation that left the young woman comotose, and dead just days later.
During testimony Tuesday, it was revealed that a suspect in the beating told an undercover detective that she was only trying to protect herself during the altercation.
“She hit me first,” Zavala allegedly told the detective. “I acted in self-defense.”
The brief comment revealed in court Tuesday is the only portion of a jailhouse conversation secretly recorded by Santa Ana Police Det. Patricia Navarro admitted into court Tuesday.
Navarro testified earlier that she spent an hour with Zavala inside a jail holding cell.
Navarro had testified Monday that she secretly recorded the conversation after Zavala had refused to talk with police and asked for a lawyer.
But before she could describe the recorded conversation, Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Borris ordered the attorneys into his chambers and then excused the detective from the witness stand. The detective did not return to the witness stand Tuesday.
The brief snippet from the jailhouse interview was revealed on the second day of a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to order Zavala and Brito to stand trial in the death of Pham, who was left comatose after the Jan 18 altercation outside a downtown Santa Ana nightclub. Pham later died.
Several legal experts had predicted that the secretly recorded conversation would be difficult to introduce as evidence during trial.
Dmitry Gorin, a former prosecutor and now a prominent defense attorney, said “questioning cannot continue after the suspect invokes their rights to legal counsel.”
The law, he said, allows for an officer or detective to silently listen to a conversation or even eavesdrop, but not interact by questioning a suspect who has invoked their right to an attorney.
Veteran Orange County criminal defense attorney Paul Wallin said he was shocked that a detective had gone undercover to record a conversation with a person who had invoked their right to remain silent.
“My take is this conduct is outrageous,” he said.
Many police departments secretly record inmates in their jails, and prosecutors sometimes use jailhouse informants as witnesses to describe conversations or even confessions they claim to have overheard. But Gorin said it appears Santa Ana police went a step further by getting a detective to pose as a fellow inmate in an effort to get Zavala to make incriminating statements.
On Tuesday, defense attorney Kenneth Reed accused police Det. Leo Rodriguez of siding with Pham and failing to photograph Zavala when she told him that she had been injured in the fight.
Rodriguez took Zavala -- still in her pajamas -- in for questioning two days after going to her Santa Ana home at 1 a.m.
Cellphone video shown in court shows Pham throwing what investigators said was the first punch of the fight. Pham is also seen straddling and hitting a woman on the ground. Reed identified that person as Amelia Avila, a woman whose photograph was distributed by police as a person of interest in the case.
Toward the end of the video, another woman – identified by the detective as Zavala – is seen kicking at the ground, in the direction of Pham
Reed stopped one of the video clips and pointed to a man shown pulling Avila by her legs. He said that Zavala kicked Pham in self-defense, in part, because she saw her friend being dragged away.
“All these things are relevant,” Reed said. “If she’s watching her girlfriend being pulled by some guy by her legs while this other woman is beating on her, that is the essence of what this is about.”
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