A 21-year-old Vietnamese student was found guilty Thursday of involuntary manslaughter in the Oct. 13, 1984, shooting death of Cal State Fullerton physics professor Edward Lee Cooperman.
Minh Van Lam, who claimed that Cooperman was like a father to him, had told police he shot the professor by accident while the two were handling Cooperman's .25-caliber handgun in the professor's office.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard J. Beacom reached the verdict in the non-jury trial. At Lam's first trial last month, which ended in a hung jury, nine of the 12 jurors voted for involuntary manslaughter. The other three jurors voted for acquittal on all charges.
Cooperman was well known locally for his efforts to provide humanitarian and scientific aid for Vietnam. Friends and associates have contended that authorities failed to fully investigate the possibility that his death was the result of a political assassination.
A second jury was already impaneled earlier this week when both sides agreed to let Beacom decide the case. The prosecution presented no new evidence at the second trial, which lasted less than two days.
The prosecution had argued for first-degree murder at the first trial. Beacom dismissed that charge after all 12 jurors in the first trial voted against it. At the second trial, James Enright, chief deputy district attorney, argued for a second-degree murder conviction, punishable by 15 years to life in prison.
Lam is scheduled to be sentenced May 17 and faces two to four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, plus up to two additional years for use of a firearm.
Lam's attorney, Alan May, said afterward: "We're pleased, although we had hoped for an acquittal. Minh is pleased that the judge at least believes his version that the whole thing was an accident."
Lam did not testify at either trial, but his tape-recorded and videotaped statements to police after the shooting--in which he claimed it was accidental--were entered as evidence.
Cooperman's family and friends expressed bitterness at the district attorney's office for not vigorously pursuing the political assassination theory.
"I didn't expect anymore," said Klaaske Cooperman, the professor's widow. "This is the American system of justice. It's pretty obvious a deal was made so that no one would have to face up to having a political assassination in their backyard."
Tony Russo, a close friend of the professor, said: "It was a travesty. The judge has just given other assassins a license to kill."
Prosecutor Enright said later that his office did everything possible to come up with evidence of a political assassination.
"It's one thing to have a lot of theories, but it's another to have evidence you can take before a judge," he said.
Lam has said that after the shooting at Cooperman's sixth-floor Science Building office, he left the professor on the floor not knowing if he was dead or alive. Instead of calling paramedics, he left the office and went to a movie with a girlfriend.
After the movie, he returned to Cooperman's office, placed the gun in Cooperman's outstretched left hand and called campus police, about four hours after the shooting.
"Lam's actions speak a language that need no interpretation," Enright told the court.