Lam's Statements on Gun Challenged : Testimony Reveals Apparent Incongruity

Times Staff Writer

A defense-hired psychiatrist testified Tuesday that defendant Minh Van Lam told him he planted the gun in the outstretched hand of Cal State Fullerton professor Edward Lee Cooperman to make the physicist's death look like a suicide.

On cross-examination, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mel Jensen used the defense witness, Dr. Tran Tung, as a vehicle to parade before jurors a host of possibly incriminating statements Lam made to police, despite objections by Lam's attorney, Alan May.

Went to 'Purple Rain'

Lam, 21, a former student of Cooperman, is on trial for murder in Orange County Superior Court in Cooperman's Oct. 13, 1984, shooting death. Lam told police the .25-caliber handgun went off by accident when the professor grabbed his arm to show him how to aim it.

Lam said he went to the movie "Purple Rain" with a girlfriend after the shooting, then returned to Cooperman's office about three to four hours later and planted the gun in Cooperman's left hand. (Cooperman was left-handed.) Then Lam called campus police and said he had found Cooperman that way.

Lam told police, and also told The Times in a jailhouse interview, that he planted the gun so that police could see that Cooperman was responsible for the "accident."

But Jensen had told the jurors in his opening statement that Lam planted the gun to make it appear Cooperman killed himself.

Tuesday, Tung testified that Lam told him that he had in fact tried to make the shooting appear to be a suicide.

Tung said he interviewed Lam for 90 minutes on two separate occasions last weekend at the Orange County Jail.

Lam's attorney, May, said later that Lam still contends that he did not try to make the shooting look like a suicide.

"I don't think Lam told the doctor (Tung) about a suicide either," May said. "I think the doctor was tired after a full day of cross-examination and he got confused."

Tung, a former minister of health for the government of South Vietnam, was called by May as an expert on Vietnamese cultural differences in an effort to explain what might have caused Lam to flee after Cooperman was shot.

Suicide Scene in Movie

(The movie "Purple Rain," starring the rock singer Prince, includes a suicide scene in which Prince's father kills himself with a gun. The girl Lam took to the movie, 15-year-old Helen Bai, testified for Jensen last week that she and Lam did not stay to the end of the movie. But she said they did see the suicide scene before they left.)

But Tung testified that he had given Lam a psychological examination, and Judge Richard J. Beacom agreed with Jensen that this gave the prosecution much wider latitude in cross-examination.

Jensen then used Tung to challenge numerous statements Lam made to the police.

For example, Tung testified that Lam's fleeing was based on his Vietnamese background and was twofold: Lam feared reprisal from the police even if he told the truth, and Lam feared Cooperman's ghost.

But Jensen pointed to a transcript of Lam's statement to police, that he had fled because "I don't want to ruin my career."

"Did Lam say anything about being scared of the police?" Jensen asked.

"No," Tung said.

"Did he say he was worried about Dr. Cooperman's ghost?" Jensen asked.

"No," Tung said.

Tung also said that Lam did not lie to police after Lam confessed his involvement. Jensen immediately brought out the transcript to show that Lam said--after his confession--that he had brought the gun, but not the bullets, to Cooperman's office. Later in the transcript, Lam admitted that he had brought both.

"So you were in error when you said he had not lied to the police after he admitted his involvement, weren't you?" Jensen asked.

Tung paused and then said, "Yes."

May tried to show the jury that Jensen misinterpreted Lam's statement about the bullets. But both attorneys stopped the questioning after Tung admitted he was hopelessly confused.

Tung also said that Lam told him he had not been involved with guns except for what Cooperman gave him. Jensen asked Tung what he would say if Jensen told him he could show information to the contrary.

Jensen then started to introduce a letter allegedly written by Lam in September, 1984--before Cooperman's death--to an inmate at the Orange County Jail, and found in Lam's car when he was arrested. (The jail had sent the letter back.) But May vehemently objected and called the letter irrelevant.

Beacom did not permit Jensen to introduce the letter as evidence.

Jensen has refused to reveal what is in the letter. So has May, except to say that it makes a reference to a weapon.

Jensen has not ruled out trying to use the letter in his rebuttal.

Jensen spent considerable time challenging Tung's statement that when Lam told him he was innocent, Tung believed him. Jensen asked Tung if he had read all the police reports and interviewed pertinent witnesses before making that judgment. Tung said he had not.

"So you don't really know if he's innocent or not, do you?" Jensen said.

Tung responded that determining whether Lam is innocent was not the purpose of his interviews.

On questioning by May, Tung said that Lam's lies to the police were lies of omission, which he interpreted as less serious than direct lies about what he did. Lam's actions right after the shooting, Tung said, were uncontrollable because he was in "trancelike" panic over the shooting.

In other court matters, Judge Beacom said he has not decided yet whether he will permit jurors to go to Cooperman's Cal State Fullerton office to view the shooting scene. Most of Jensen's case, and May's defense, is based on blood marks left in the office after the shooting.

Jensen said he wants the jury to see the office. May said he would agree, but only if the office is essentially in the same condition it was in when police found Cooperman's body.

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