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Jury Panel Recommends Death for Violent Spree

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An unprecedented spree of violence--including two murders--left jurors feeling they had no choice but to recommend the death penalty Tuesday for a Westminster man who could become Orange County’s first gang member to face execution.

Lam Nguyen, 23, showed no emotion as the verdict reached by the panel of eight women and four men was read aloud amid heavy courtroom security. The Orange County Superior Court jurors, who deliberated for less than two days, then were quickly escorted out of the courtroom. Almost all said they were too fearful to speak publicly or be identified.

“Putting someone to death, that’s not an easy process,” said a 35-year-old female juror from Westminster. “We really had to hash it out together and went home and did some real soul-searching.”

The Orange County district attorney’s office prosecutes 10 to 15 gang-related murder cases each year, and most result in sentences of life in prison without parole. Nguyen’s is the first in which prosecutors sought the death penalty, a decision they made based on the excessive violence involved.

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Last week, the same jury convicted Nguyen of two murders and eight other crimes including attempted murder, all committed for a notorious street gang. Jurors also acquitted him of two charges, including a 1995 slaying at a Westminster coin-operated laundry.

The crime spree began with a drive-by shooting in July 1994 that left a rival gang member paralyzed from the neck down, according to testimony. Four months later, Nguyen chased another man in an arcade in Garden Grove, shooting him and also leaving him paralyzed, witnesses said.

In March 1995, a third attempted murder occurred when Nguyen repeatedly fired at another gang member outside a pool hall in Stanton. That man recovered from his wounds.

Nguyen was convicted of killing Garden Grove gang member Sang Nguyen, who was shot in the head in February 1995 as he left a restaurant on the edge of Little Saigon, where Nguyen had followed him. Three months later, Nguyen was involved in a shootout with rival gang members that left another Garden Grove gang member, Tuan Pham, dead, authorities said.

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The jury’s 28-year-old forewoman said the crimes were simply too egregious to warrant the other possible sentence of life in prison without parole. She said she was especially swayed by “the fact that he chased [the victims] down and there was an intention to kill.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robin Park said the jury’s recommendation was appropriate punishment given “the amount of pain and damage that he’s left behind.”

“I certainly hope [the verdict] will send a message that when the victim is a gang member, a jury doesn’t take it any less seriously,” Park added.

Nguyen’s attorney, Gregory Parkin, said he was disappointed by the outcome and will appeal the verdict. But he said he couldn’t fault the jury, which had acquitted his client of one of the murder charges against him.

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“It shows they were working hard on the case,” he said.

Parkin said the shootings were crimes in which “there are no innocent victims.”

“They were all victims who were participating in violent and extreme gangs,” he said. “Everyone in this case made choices in life. . . . They must have known they were placing themselves in such dangerous situations.”

During the trial, Parkin had tried to save his client’s life by telling the jury about the defendant’s troubled childhood, marked by constant upheaval, which included coming to the United States from Vietnam on a crowded boat and time spent in refugee camps in Thailand and Indonesia.

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“He was shuffled around and didn’t have any kind of stable home life,” Parkin said. “He didn’t have anyone to give him a sense of direction.”

Nguyen drew sympathy Tuesday from an unlikely source, the mother of murder victim Sang Nguyen.

The mother, Cai Tran, arrived in court after the verdict was read and instead of being jubilant or relieved, expressed sadness.

“I support the jury’s decision, but I’m sad [about] the outcome,” she said. “At the beginning, I was very angry, but now that I see [Nguyen] in court, I feel sad for him, for his life.”

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But jurors said they found it difficult to feel sympathetic toward the defendant.

“He didn’t seem to have any remorse,” said the female juror from Westminster. “He didn’t seem to have any sympathy for the people he killed.”

Nguyen is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 18 by Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno.


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