Mistrial Declared in Cooperman Slaying : Lam Jury Rejects 1st-Degree Murder Count, Deadlocks on Others

Times Staff Writers

A mistrial was declared Tuesday when an Orange County Superior Court jury "hopelessly deadlocked" after deliberating only three days in the murder trial of Minh Van Lam, a Vietnamese refugee charged with killing Cal State Fullerton 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 believed Lam accidentally shot Cooperman to death last Oct. 13 in the physics professor's office.

It was not clear Tuesday whether the jury vote precludes a retrial on the first-degree murder count, but defense attorney Alan May said he will seek such a ruling Friday.

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 the Communist regime in Vietnam. Cooperman's friends and relatives maintained that the professor was assassinated by right-wing elements of the local Vietnamese community who were angered by his support of the Communist regime. They contended that Lam was the hit man.

But the prosecution drew no connection between Lam and an assassination plot and, according to foreman 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. 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 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. But Lam said the gun went off accidentally when the professor grabbed his arm to show him how to aim the weapon.

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

A court source indicated that Beacom will push for some resolution of the case--a plea to a lesser charge or a dismissal. Failing that, the source said, Beacom will presumably set a new trial date and send the case to presiding Judge Everett W. Dickey for reassignment to another judge.

After two weeks of trial and the three days of jury deliberation that began last Wednesday, there is still no court determination of what really happened in Cooperman's cramped office, where on a Saturday afternoon the professor's blood-soaked body was found sprawled on the floor, 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, which 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.

"There are a lot of doubts," Christensen said of the two weeks of testimony. "It was very confusing on the part of the prosecution."

Prosecutor Jensen declined to comment on the hung jury, other than to say that "the jurors worked hard and they did what they could with the evidence."

Whether the 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 a hung jury on lesser charges leads to a mistrial, said Chief Deputy Orange County Dist. Atty. James G. Enright, 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 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 for a finding of acquittal on the first-degree murder charge.

But Beacom did, however, ask the jurors individually if they were "hopelessly deadlocked," as Christensen had explained in court. At the judge's request, Christensen gave the numerical breakdown on each criminal count, but did not specify which numbers were for guilt and which for innocence.

Defense attorney May claimed later that the jurors, by implication, adopted the 12-0 vote on first-degree murder when they individually agreed they were deadlocked. 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.

Second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter require only a general intent, which could be gross negligence or extreme recklessness.

Lam, 21, a Westminster resident who fled Vietnam with relatives in 1978 and was a former student of Cooperman, was "perplexed" by the mistrial ruling, May said.

"But I think he was pleased that they (jurors) did not compromise on involuntary manslaughter," May said. "He obviously wanted to get this thing over with."

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

In a videotaped re-enactment played during the trial for jurors, Lam showed Fullerton police how he "accidentally" shot Cooperman when, according to Lam, the professor grabbed his arm to show him how to aim the gun.

Lam said he left in a panic and took a girlfriend to a movie, but returned to the office about four hours later and called campus police to report the "accident."

Prosecutor Jensen said in his closing statements that Lam intended to kill the professor. Jensen said Lam went to see the movie "Purple Rain" to establish an alibi, but returned to the office after getting the idea from a suicide scene in the film to place the gun in Cooperman's hand to make it seem that the professor killed himself.

Cooperman's friends suggested yet another possibility--that the 48-year-old professor was an assassination target of members of the local Vietnamese community who were angered by Cooperman's support for the Communist regime in Vietnam.

Though witnesses testified that Cooperman feared Vietnamese "hit men," no evidence was ever presented linking Lam with an assassination plot. There was testimony, however, describing Lam and Cooperman as close friends.

"Assassins," defense attorney May argues, "don't come back and call the police."

Lack of Motive Cited

May maintained that the prosecution had shown no motive for Lam to have killed his "sugar daddy." Cooperman gave Lam money on several occasions, including $400 for a motorcycle, and gave Lam his highest college grade--a B, according to testimony.

Several leaders of Orange County's large Vietnamese community said Tuesday that they believe Lam is receiving fair treatment by the American judicial system.

Cao Thi, president of the Vietnamese League of Orange County, expressed satisfaction at the jury's unanimous vote against a first-degree murder conviction and said he considers Lam's trial fair. He said he believes the general feeling within the Vietnamese community is that "Lam is not the kind of person that is willing to kill anybody."

"If they found enough evidence to say that Lam . . . did it, then we have to follow the decision of the court," Thi said. "But reading the newspaper, the evidence brought out is not kind of solid."

"Whether he's guilty or not guilty, I have no evidence," said Phan Ha, executive director of the Vietnamese League. "I think in this case it's a fair trial. I'm sure it's fair. . . . I believe that this is a country of fairness."

Believes It 'Was an Accident'

Tran Minh The, president of the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns. of Southern California, said he was "very joyful" to learn of the jury's vote against a first-degree murder conviction, and said he "absolutely" believes that Cooperman's death was not a political killing.

"I believe strongly it was an accident," The said.

Many of Cooperman's friends who attended the trial, including former Pentagon Papers case defendant Anthony Russo, initially were unhappy with the prosecution's case because it made scant mention of Cooperman's fear of political assassination.

But Russo and other Cooperman colleagues were pleased when the defense called numerous witnesses to testify about those fears and the precautions Cooperman had taken, including buying and learning to use handguns.

Russo eventually praised the prosecution after Jensen stressed in his closing argument that Lam should be convicted of first-degree murder.

The defense, however, argued that it was Cooperman's very fear of assassination that triggered his death by leading to a situation in which he handled a loaded pistol with a student.

Experts for the defense and prosecution testified that the blood patterns found on Cooperman's office walls, floor and furniture could be consistent with both the prosecution and defense scenarios.

Times staff writer David Holley contributed to this article.

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