Mistrial Declared in Campus Killing of Fullerton Professor

Times Staff Writers

A mistrial was declared Tuesday when an Orange County Superior Court jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked after deliberating three days in the murder trial of Minh Van Lam, a Vietnamese refugee charged with killing Prof. Edward Lee Cooperman.

Jurors unanimously rejected the prosecution's first-degree murder theory, voting 12-0 for Lam's innocence on that charge.

"There just was no real evidence (for a first-degree murder finding)," jury foreman Otto Christensen told reporters, adding that he believes that Lam accidentally shot Cooperman to death last Oct. 13 in the physics professor's office at California State University, Fullerton.

It was unclear Tuesday whether the jury vote on that count precludes retrial for first-degree murder.

Christensen said that the jury also considered lesser charges, voting 11 to 1 for innocence on voluntary manslaughter, 7 to 5 favoring conviction on second-degree murder, and 9 to 3 for conviction on involuntary manslaughter.

The trial gained international attention because Cooperman was known for his involvement in programs providing humanitarian and scientific aid to postwar Vietnam. Cooperman's friends and relatives maintained that the professor was assassinated by right-wing elements of the local Vietnamese community angered by his aid of postwar Vietnam and that Lam was the hit man.

But the prosecution made no connection between Lam and an assassination plot and, according to Christensen, a ship's captain, the jurors "did not feel there was any assassination."

The prosecution offered no evidence of a motive for the killing, and Christensen said the lack of a motive definitely influenced some jurors to favor acquittal.

Before their deliberation, jurors were instructed by Judge Richard J. Beacom that a guilty verdict does not require proof of a motive but that jurors could consider the absence of a motive as favorable to the defense.

Lam, 21, admitted to police in separate taped and videotaped statements that he shot Cooperman while the two were "horsing around" in Cooperman's sixth-floor office in the university's Science Building. Lam said the gun fired accidentally when the professor grabbed his arm in a mock defensive maneuver.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Mel Jensen would not say Tuesday whether his office will retry Lam on first- or second-degree murder charges, saying only that he will have to wait until a hearing scheduled for Friday in Beacom's court.

After two weeks of trial and jury deliberation that began last Wednesday, there is still no court determination of what really happened in Cooperman's cramped office, where his blood-soaked body was found sprawled on the floor on a Saturday afternoon, a .25-caliber gun in his left hand and a fatal bullet wound in his neck.

Lam telephoned campus police to report finding the body, but later admitted placing the gun in Cooperman's hand, an act the prosecution said was an attempt to make the shooting look like a suicide. Lam later told police that the shooting occurred about 11:30 a.m. and that he left the building in a panic, took a girlfriend to a movie, then returned to the office about 3:30 p.m. to report the shooting.

Whether jurors in effect acquitted Lam of first-degree murder is unclear.

Appellate court decisions have held that a defendant can be acquitted on a higher charge even if the jury is deadlocked on lesser charges, leading to a mistrial, said James G. Enright, Orange County's chief deputy district attorney, who heads the murder prosecution panel.

The law forbids retrial on the higher charge if a jury formally enters its findings on a verdict form or if the judge asks each juror about his findings, Enright said.

The jurors in the Lam case did not sign a form and the defense did not ask the judge to formally find Lam acquitted of first-degree murder.

Beacom did, however, ask the jurors individually if they were hopelessly deadlocked, as Christensen had said in court. At the judge's request, Christensen gave the numerical breakdown on each criminal count.

Defense attorney Alan May said he would argue at a retrial that the prosecution is barred from seeking first-degree or voluntary manslaughter convictions, both of which require a specific intent to kill.

After the jurors were discharged, Lam was returned to custody in Orange County Jail, where he has been held in lieu of $200,000 bail since his arrest on the day of the shooting.

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