Three Chinatown gang members were convicted by separate juries Thursday of murdering human rights activist and Oscar-winning actor Haing Ngor, who escaped Cambodia’s infamous “killing fields” only to be gunned down outside his Los Angeles apartment in a 1996 robbery.
The convictions of Tak Sun Tan, 21, and 20-year-olds Jason Chan and Indra Lim came on the same day that authorities in Cambodia confirmed the fatal heart attack of Pol Pot, whose murderous regime claimed more than 1 million lives. Today, in fact, marks the 23rd grim anniversary of the day Pol Pot took power.
That fact was not lost Thursday on friends and family of Ngor, who authorities believe was shot after refusing to hand over a tiny locket carrying a photo of his late wife.
“Pol Pot is dead, and the memory of my godfather lives on,” said Ngor’s goddaughter Sundary Rama, 28.
The convictions of Tan, Chan and Lim also was marked by history of another kind: it was the first time in the county, and only the second time in California, that three separate juries simultaneously weighed evidence in a single crime.
Although Tan’s jury did not accept the prosecution’s theory that he was the gunman, the unanimity of the verdicts stood as some testament to the defendants’ roles in Ngor’s killing, authorities said.
“I think the juries did an incredible job of cutting through all the clutter . . . [and] putting the three people who committed this horrible crime away,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Hum, who tried all three cases before Superior Court Judge J.D. Smith.
Although the criminal histories of the defendants and the circumstances of Ngor’s slaying did not lead prosecutors to seek the death penalty, each of the three men will serve long prison sentences for their convictions on first-degree murder and second-degree robbery charges.
Chan, who faces life in prison without the possibility of parole, will be sentenced May 19, along with Lim, who stands to serve 26 years to life.
Tan, who has two prior convictions for robbery, faces a prison sentence of up to 81 years to life and will return to court Monday for a third-strike proceeding before a jury.
The verdicts, which came after a six-week trial, will be appealed by attorneys for the defendants.
“We were all shocked that the 36 jurors came back [with convictions],” said Joy Wilensky, Lim’s deputy alternate public defender.
“They really did not have solid evidence to prove that these kids had anything to do with this murder. . . . What they heard in common was that these kids were all gang members and had been involved in snatching chains” in Chinatown before Ngor’s slaying, Wilensky said.
Indeed, defense attorneys noted, there was at least an inconsistency in the verdicts given the fact that the only defendant accused of actually shooting Ngor was found not guilty of that firearms charge. Moreover, the attorneys argued, the juries were improperly allowed to hear prosecution evidence that, by law, had no connection to the crime.
“They managed to get in prior bad acts. They managed to get in calling these [defendants] gangsters and gang members and you put that before juries today and they don’t get past it,” Wilensky said.
Chan’s attorney, Ivan Klein, said, “There was a laundry list of judicial errors.”
But prosecutor Hum, threading together a circumstantial evidence case that included no murder weapon or eyewitnesses, disagreed, arguing that there was more than sufficient evidence linking the men to Ngor’s killing Feb. 25, 1996.
During the trial, which began with lengthy jury selection, Hum argued that Ngor was shot to death in the carport of his Beaudry Avenue apartment after Tan, Chan and Lim, all high on crack cocaine, robbed him to get money to buy more drugs.
Hum said that the trio, members of a gang called the Oriental Lazy Boys, took Ngor’s $6,000 Rolex watch but shot him with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun when he refused to part with a gold locket containing the picture of his late wife, who died in childbirth.
Acclaimed Film Role
Her death occurred as Ngor, a physician, attempted to return to her side but could not help her without giving away his true identity. Ngor was imprisoned and tortured during the war, losing a finger. He escaped to the United States via Thailand in 1980, and four years later won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his portrayal of real life Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran in the 1984 movie “The Killing Fields.”
The film detailed the murderous rampage of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist guerrillas who took over the country in 1975. Nearly 2 million died during the war, more than half at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Ngor’s overnight leap to prominence gave him a platform to attack the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and to lobby for human rights, work he continued up until his death.
Despite his wealth, Ngor continued to live in his modest apartment near Dodger Stadium marked with gang graffiti. He spent money on several causes, invested in business ventures in Cambodia to rebuild the country and worked here to combat gang violence.
“My uncle, when he spoke to [students] . . . always told them to stay away from gangs and work hard in school,” his tearful niece, Sophia, told reporters Thursday.
Against that backdrop, the trial of the men accused of Ngor’s death seemed all the more wrenching.
“What these defendants did was take the life of an unbelievable human being, doctor, Academy Award-winner and great humanitarian,” prosecutor Hum said during his closing remarks to one jury. “Dr. Haing Ngor survived the killing fields of Cambodia, where over 1 million people died, just to be murdered in the killing streets of Los Angeles.”
As proof, Hum relied heavily on taped testimony by witnesses who later recanted their accounts during the trial. (Their reversal, Hum told jurors, was extremely common in gang cases in which witnesses are afraid of retaliation.)
On tape-recorded accounts made to police, two witnesses placed the defendants at the scene of the crime on the night of the murder, saying that they saw Lim, Tan and Chan running from Ngor’s apartment complex and that they gave them a ride.
But the same witnesses during the trial said they either could not remember or did not know what they told police or saw on the night of the crime.
Other prosecution witnesses also testified that they saw Chan in possession of a 9-millimeter Glock pistol, the same type used to kill Ngor, days before the killing.
Thol “T-Bone” May, a reputed member of the Oriental Lazy Boys, who told authorities he saw Chan with the gun, said during preliminary hearings: “My life is over. If they want to kill me, go ahead. But I just want to say to all my homies, I am sorry.”
The defendants also gave conflicting accounts to police. They did not testify during the trial but tapes of their police interviews were played for jurors.
In the tapes, Tan placed Lim and Chan together in the alley were Ngor was killed and told police he heard shots.
Defense attorneys attacked the prosecution’s case as flawed. They focused on, among other things, the fact that more than $3,000 in cash in Ngor’s Mercedes-Benz on the night of the murder was untouched.
“If robbery is the only motive in this case, why is there so much cash not taken?” asked Deputy Public Defender Steven Schoenfield, Tan’s lawyer.
Schoenfield and the other attorneys also noted that there was no physical evidence linking their clients to the crime scene. The stolen Rolex watch and the murder weapon were never recovered.
But given the high-profile nature of the case, the defense contended, detectives pinned the murder on their clients, and then pressured witnesses into identifying them.
“They rounded up the usual suspects,” Klein said during his closing arguments.
“Who knows [what happened]?” he asked jurors rhetorically. “Who has come in here to show that [the defendants] had been smoking the last of their coke and they didn’t have money and they wanted more?
“Is there any one witness in this courtroom to say they saw Jason Chan shoot Dr. Ngor?”
When the verdicts were read, the three defendants showed almost no emotion. Neither did their families, some of whom--including the mothers of Tan and Lim--also survived the Khmer Rouge.
“They’ve lived through Pol Pot,” said Jack Ong, executive director of the Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation. “This is how they face tragedy. They just stay stone-faced.”
Still, the pain was visible in their eyes.
Chan’s mother at one point held Tan’s mother’s knee, comforting her.
Lim’s older brother, who requested that his name not be used, said his family was completely “shocked by the verdict.”
The last two years, he added, had been devastating for the family.
Members of the largest Cambodian community in the country in Long Beach welcomed the news of the verdicts.
“I am really glad they found the murderers who were involved,” said Kimthai Rich Kuoch, acting executive director of the Cambodian Assn. of America, a refugee social services organization. “Someone was actually arrested, tried and convicted, unlike three murders here of Cambodian children in Long Beach nine months ago. There still are no suspects.”
And on a day when the guilty verdicts brought some closure to Ngor’s family and friends, their thoughts were with his memory and the pain the defendants’ families will endure.
“Our hearts feel for the parents of the defendants,” Ong said. “We have seen the mothers weep. We have seen the fathers cry.”
Times correspondent Deborah Belgum contributed to this story.