Orange County

Women sentenced to 6-year terms in fatal Santa Ana nightclub beating

Women sentenced to six-year terms in fatal beating outside Santa Ana nightclub

Two women who kicked a newlywed to death outside a Santa Ana nightclub begged her family for forgiveness Friday and then fought tears as they were each sentenced to six years in prison.

Candace Brito and Vanesa Zavala were convicted in July of felony manslaughter but acquitted on far more serious charges of second-degree murder in a case that drew national attention, in part because of initial reports that bystanders watched or filmed the brawl on their smartphones instead of intervening.

"If I could change it all, I would. I can't imagine the pain you have all suffered," Brito told Kim Pham's family.

"I've prayed for each of you, even prayed to Kim for her forgiveness."

Zavala, the mother of a 4-year-old son, bowed her head and said: "As a parent, I can only imagine your loss... I am deeply sorry and I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive."

The criminal case against Zavala and Brito was built mostly on eyewitness accounts and grainy cellphone videos.

But in court, the accounts of what happened outside the Crosby nightclub last January varied wildly and none of the footage seemed to capture what prosecutors said was the decisive moment — the defendants kicking Pham in the temple.

Zavala and Brito denied kicking Pham and said they were only trying to defend themselves and a friend as the brawl turned chaotic.

Pham, who had recently graduated from Chapman University and aspired to be a journalist, was left crumpled on the sidewalk and died three days later without regaining consciousness.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said the case troubled him because "had they met in broad daylight, having ingested no alcohol, under other circumstances, they might have been friends."

He asked Brito and Zavala again and again: "Why didn't you just walk away? If any of you had just swallowed your pride and walked away, we wouldn't be here."

He ordered the women to pay the family $3,500, the cost of Pham's burial.

Goethals said he also was disturbed by what he called the "rabid attention" the case attracted on social media, which he blamed on the entertainment value of "a girl fight on the sidewalk."

One of Pham's sisters told the court that the 23-year-old was "funny, smart, beautiful" and that her death will forever affect the tight-knit family.

"I remember asking God to trade my life for her," said Katie Nguyen.

Vy Dao said she still catches herself picking up the phone to call Pham, her best friend of 10 years, and is haunted by memories of the victim's final days in the hospital, comatose and waiting for her organs to be harvested.

Michael Molfetta, Brito's attorney, said he too apologized to Pham's family during the trial.

"I'm human," he said. "This night was the result of a series of tragic decisions. And that's what makes me angry — all of this could have been avoided."

Defense attorneys said they prepped their clients for the prison terms. Each will get credit for the 10 months they've been in jail and, with time off for good behavior, could be free in just over two years.

Brito and Zavala's supporters exchanged hugs after the hearing.

"Never has she been in a fight. Never — but that one night," said Jessica Ramirez, Zavala's mother-in-law. "Vanesa is not a mean person. She doesn't have that bone in her body."

Dung Pham, Kim Pham's father, said outside the courtroom that the prison terms did little to bring comfort.

"My child is already lost to us," he said. "Six, eight, 11, the number of years is just a number. To me, it has little meaning."

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier

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