A rounded steel police lock covers the doorknob to Room 665B in Cal State Fullerton's Science Building, the office of slain physics professor Edward Lee Cooperman. The door pane is covered with a shade to prevent anyone from seeing the dried blood and scattered papers inside.
Cooperman, 48, had two passions in life outside his family--teaching and organizing aid for Vietnam. He directed both endeavors from Room 665B, where he was fatally shot through the left side of the neck with a .25-caliber handgun on Saturday, Oct. 13.
Minh Van Lam, a 21-year-old Vietnamese student, of Westminster, went on trial Thursday afternoon before Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard J. Beacom on murder charges in the professor's death.
It took only three hours Thursday for prosecution and defense attorneys to select a seven-woman, five-man jury.
The trial, expected to last about a month, is to resume Monday at 9 a.m.
Lam has said he shot Cooperman by accident when the professor grabbed his arm to show Lam how to use the gun.
The shooting has brought international attention to Orange County because Cooperman was widely known for efforts to organize scientific and humanitarian aid for Vietnam. There has been a heated debate over what, if any, importance Cooperman's activities and political views may have played in his death.
Two widely varying theories have been promoted with equal zeal:
- The professor's friends have suggested that Lam was involved in a political assassination plot and have demanded that police investigate right-wing elements in Orange County's Vietnamese community. Police say they have yet to find evidence of a political conspiracy. Cooperman, after returning last July from a trip to Vietnam, told his family and friends he had received death threats which he feared were made by right-wing Vietnamese.
- Lam's attorney, Alan May of Santa Ana, has argued that Cooperman's ties to Communist-controlled Vietnam involved a secret life of political intrigue which somehow led him to his "accidental" death.
The flamboyant May, who has made many sweeping assertions about Cooperman's private and public lives, says attention should be directed at Cooperman and what the lawyer considers his left-wing ties.
Prosecutors in the Orange County district attorney's office believe the key to shooting is the physical evidence inside Room 665B.
"You can debate all day about Dr. Cooperman's politics; it doesn't mean a thing," said chief homicide prosecutor James Enright. "The jurors are going to picture in their minds what happened in that office when the professor was killed. And that's what matters."
If the Lam case is like most other murder trials in Orange County, the jurors will go to the scene of the shooting. But if they don't, they will likely see the handful of pictures taken inside the office soon after the shooting was reported.
Those pictures, a major part of the prosecution's case, show Cooperman's blood on two opposite walls, a file cabinet, his desk and his telephone. They also show papers scattered on the desk.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Mel Jensen will contend that this was the scene of a struggle. Jensen will use testimony from a pathologist to try to support his "struggle" theory.
Two other pieces of evidence will be important to Jensen's case: Lam's tape-recorded statement to police and his videotaped re-creation of how Cooperman was killed.
Jensen plans to use those tapes to show that Lam's "accident" explanation conflicts with the condition of the room. Other officials in the district attorney's office believe the tapes at least will shock the jurors when they hear Lam explain his actions after the shooting.
Lam, a student of Cooperman in 1983, said the professor "was like a father to me."
Yet after the shooting, Lam admits he left Cooperman lying on the floor without calling paramedics and without knowing whether Cooperman could be saved. He said he took a girlfriend to a movie.
Three to four hours later, Lam said, he returned and placed the gun in Cooperman's left hand (Cooperman was left-handed), then called campus police and acted as if he had just found the body. Lam admitted his involvement about three hours later, during police interrogation.
Most of the media attention in the case has been focused on Cooperman, partly because May has been steadily releasing information from files found in Cooperman's office.
Cooperman was a physics professor at Cal State Fullerton for 17 years. During most of that time, he was active in anti-war efforts and organizations promoting scientific and humanitarian ties with Vietnam.
He was an outspoken critic of American military involvement in Vietnam. When the war ended, Cooperman became involved with a scientific task force to help the country. In 1979, he founded the Scientific Committee for Cooperation with Vietnam and began traveling to Vietnam, sometimes twice a year.
May claims that Cooperman shipped high-technology equipment to Vietnam in violation of federal regulations. Cooperman's associates say all the equipment was actually "low-tech" and that Cooperman scrupulously made sure that all shipments met State Department specifications.
Both sides agree that Cooperman, because of his interest in Vietnam, befriended many Vietnamese students, including Lam, a refugee who came to the United States at age 14.
The professor's widow, Klaaske Cooperman, believes he wanted to help Lam, who had been in trouble with the police. She told law enforcement officials her husband had told her that Lam "was a good kid who just got mixed up with the wrong crowd."
Lam was arrested Aug. 30 and charged with auto theft and later admitted to police that he drove for some juveniles when they broke into three cars on Aug. 29. In an interview at the Orange County Jail, Lam told The Times he was not aware he was breaking any law, since he did not steal anything himself.
Lam, who speaks softly in good English, has said in three jailhouse interviews with The Times that he left Cooperman to die only because he panicked. He said he regrets that he did not get help for the professor.
In the last interview, on Jan. 5, Lam said he can't wait for the trial to start because "I want to get out of here." (He's been in jail since the night of the shooting, and his bail is now $200,000.)
"At my trial, I can prove I am innocent," Lam said.
Lam said that after the gun "exploded," he helped Cooperman to the floor, then left the room to see if anyone was in the hallway who could help. Lam then returned to the room, picked up his jacket and left. There was no blood all over the room at that time, Lam said in his interviews.