Orange County

2 Santa Ana women found guilty in fatal nightclub brawl

The fatal nightclub brawl was made infamous by initial claims of bystander indifference

Two Santa Ana women were found guilty of voluntary manslaughter Thursday for the fatal beating of a 23-year-old newlywed outside a nightclub, in a case made infamous by claims of bystander indifference and marked by wildly conflicting eyewitness accounts.

In delivering the verdict against Vanesa Zavala, 26, and Candace Brito, 27, Orange County Superior Court jurors acquitted them of the murder charge prosecutors had sought.

Prosecutors had accused them of delivering fatal kicks to the head of Kim Pham, a Huntington Beach woman, who was knocked to the ground outside the Crosby in downtown Santa Ana in a predawn January melee.

More than one of the jurors cried Thursday as the verdicts were read. One juror, a Marine veteran from Orange who declined to give his name, said the panel quickly ruled out the murder charges and instead debated between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

He initially favored involuntary manslaughter, he said, though all the other jurors wanted voluntary manslaughter. "There was only one person and it was me," he said. "I had a hard time with the defendants realizing that what they did could cause murder."

He changed his mind after reading the court transcript in which both defendants were asked if they knew that kicking somebody in the head could cause great bodily harm. They answered yes.

"I felt like they incriminated themselves with that question," he said.

Both defendants wiped away tears at the verdict, which came after a day of deliberations. They face up to 11 years in prison when they are sentenced Sept. 12.

Dung Pham, the victim's father, said he thought that the verdict was fair but it brought him little joy. His eyes were wet behind his thick glasses.

"As for me, I died the day my daughter died," he said. "Still, I see the defendants cry and I feel sadness for them. There is no winner, no loser."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Troy Pino produced witnesses who said the defendants kicked Pham as she grappled with one of their friends on the pavement.

"We had asked for murder, the defense had asked for acquittal, and they found something in between," Pino said after the verdict. "It was a good jury. They did what they were supposed to."

Defense attorneys argued that the shaky cellphone footage failed to show who delivered the fatal blows to Pham, and cited a forensic pathologist who said a combination of blows — not necessarily kicks — killed her.

Zavala testified that she did not kick Pham, but had aimed at a member of Pham's group. Brito denied that she kicked Pham in the head, saying she had aimed for her back.

The fight started after one of the defendants' friends bumped into Pham, who appeared to initiate the brawl by throwing the first punch. In one video, Pham appears to be straddling and hitting a woman on the ground.

Prosecutors said Zavala and Brito escalated the fight and left an unconscious Pham crumpled on the sidewalk. She died three days later.

The Jan. 18 incident drew national attention, in part because initial reports painted a picture of passive bystanders milling about or shooting cellphone video but not stopping to assist.

The truth turned out to be more complicated, however. Authorities said more than a dozen people, including a security guard, had tried to intervene.

A Facebook page called "Justice for Kim Pham," launched by the victim's sister, gave regular progress reports on the case as it made its way to trial, each post garnering thousands of "likes." Pham's supporters inundated social media with pleas for people to come forward with any video footage they might have of the scene.

Last week, two witnesses were prepared to testify that they had seen cellphone footage showing a woman kicking Pham in the head, but Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals barred their testimony after authorities were unable to find the footage.

Friends described Pham as a bubbly, high-achieving young woman with a fresh degree from Chapman University and dreams of becoming a journalist. But during a preliminary hearing, Brito's attorney, Michael Molfetta, attacked Pham's image as a "patron saint," complaining that his client had been "vilified internationally."

Molfetta said Pham had been drinking and was combative that night, and had "lit the match" that started the brawl.

"I think the tiara's off Ms. Pham," he said.

On Thursday, he said the manslaughter verdict did not surprise him.

"I told my client, 'You don't know this, but you just won. When you get out, and you will get out, you will realize you could have spent the rest of your life in jail,'" Molfetta said. "I've always said this should go down as manslaughter."

He said he will ask for probation. "It simply was never a murder," Molfetta said.

adolfo.flores@latimes.com

anh.do@latimes.com

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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