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Thais Divided Over Siripongs’ Fate

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Surachai Wattanaporn is convinced of this: Jaturun “Jay” Siripongs walked into a Garden Grove market 17 years ago, strangled his wife, fatally stabbed the store clerk and stole more than $25,000 in cash and jewelry.

For years, the 44-year-old Brea man thought the convicted killer deserved to die. But as the execution date looms on Tuesday, Wattanaporn has become an unlikely voice in the effort to spare Siripongs’ life.

“If the power was in my hands, I would give him life in prison,” he said. " . . . As time goes by, you have to overcome the difficult times, get over those feelings.”

His emotional struggle reflects a larger religious and cultural division within California’s Thai community over the pending execution of one of their own.

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Many older Thai Americans such as Wattanaporn find it difficult to reconcile executing Siripongs--a one-time Buddhist monk--with the tradition of compassion and nonviolence that is deeply embedded in Buddhist teachings.

But some younger members of the community are more comfortable with American notions of law and order and see no problem with executing a double murderer.

At the same time, people involved in the case are trying to reconcile the violence at the market with descriptions of Siripongs as a model prisoner who prays every morning and paints expressive portraits of horses, flowers, children and landscapes.

Siripongs’ family and friends--along with the Thai government--asked Gov. Pete Wilson to commute the death sentence to life in prison. On Friday, Wilson refused.

Two jurors who originally decided to impose the death penalty recently sent their own letters to the governor saying the sentence should now be lifted, as did a death-row guard and former warden from San Quentin.

Daniel B. Vasquez, the prison’s warden for 15 years, has overseen the execution of three prisoners. He said this is the first time he has ever asked a governor to commute a death sentence.

“Mr. Siripongs has proved himself to be a model prisoner,” reads a letter Vasquez wrote to Wilson. “He has remained disciplinary-free, consistently followed the prison rules, posed no danger to the institutional staff or inmates and has been respectful and helpful to correctional officers.”

Police See Siripongs as a Callous Murderer

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Police and prosecutors who have handled the case for nearly two decades take a completely different view.

They describe Siripongs as a callous, greedy murderer who showed his gratitude to his former employer by brutally killing her, and then stabbing to death the clerk. After a one-month trial in 1983, jurors agreed and sentenced Siripongs to death.

Every state and federal court has affirmed the sentence during the more than a decade of appeals.

“This type of murder embodies the type of evil which is intolerable to our community,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Tanizaki wrote in court papers. “Siripongs must suffer the consequences of his choices.”

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Siripongs was 26 years old and had lived in the United States for about a year when he robbed the Pantai Market on the afternoon of Dec. 15, 1981. The Wattanaporns ran an import-export jewelry business out of the market.

Police allege that he strangled Packovan Wattanaporn, the store manager, using a nylon cord. He stabbed the store’s clerk, Quach Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant and father of four, several times in the head and neck. Nguyen’s body was found with the cord wrapped around his arm. The fact that cuts were also found on Siripongs’ hands after the robbery suggested to police that Nguyen mounted a fierce struggle.

Surachai Wattanaporn found the bodies a few hours later lying face down in a puddle of blood in the store’s storage room.

Police arrested Siripongs two days later when he tried to purchase a television set with Wattanaporn’s credit card. At the trial, prosecutors submitted more than 100 items of evidence, much of it consisting of items recovered from a trash bin near the Cerritos home of Siripongs’ girlfriend. They included Wattanaporn’s wallet and purse, a pair of blood-stained shoes found to be Siripongs’ size, and a bloody kitchen knife.

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At Siripongs’ home in Hawthorne, police found Packovan Wattanaporn’s jewelry and several credit card receipts forged with Packovan Wattanaporn’s signatures. Jewelry worth $20,000 to $50,000 was eventually traced to Siripongs.

Siripongs’ defense attorney at the time, James Spellman, a former Orange County public defender, did not present a defense for Siripongs, opting instead to cross-examine witnesses, then claim that the state had not proved its case.

The jury deliberated only one day before returning a guilty verdict of two counts of murder, as well as robbery and burglary. They also found that Siripongs intentionally killed the victims and recommended the death penalty.

In the series of appeals that followed, Siripongs’ new attorney, Linda Schilling, argued that Spellman had not provided an adequate defense. She said he was distracted from the trial because he was running for Congress at the time, and that he had not investigated an “astounding” amount of physical evidence--such as fingerprints, shoe prints and hair samples--that pointed to the involvement of an accomplice.

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Siripongs Insists He Had an Accomplice

Siripongs admitted he participated in the robbery, said Schilling, but has insisted that an accomplice murdered the victims without him knowing that he was going to do so. Through the years, Schilling said Siripongs has refused to identify the alleged accomplice because he fears retaliation against his family members.

Prosecutors said no credible evidence exists pointing to an accomplice committing the murders. They say the accomplice theory is only an attempt by Siripongs to cast doubt on his guilt.

Moreover, federal courts that heard the Siripongs’ appeals concluded that he had received an adequate defense and agreed that no evidence existed that suggested the participation of an accomplice.

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In their unsuccessful bid for clemency, defense attorneys pointed to Siripongs’ harrowing childhood in Thailand as a mitigating factor in sparing his life.

In court documents prepared by Siripongs’ defense, family, friends and relatives portray his life as one marked by severe impoverishment, long periods of abandonment and frequent physical abuse at the hands of an alcoholic mother.

The Siripongs’ family fractured when Siripongs’ father, a wealthy opium and timber trader, divorced his mother when Siripongs was an infant. With little money and four children to raise, Siripongs’ mother, Hansa, split up the family, sending him and his sister to live with an uncle who operated a brothel out of his home.

They spent much of their time serving drinks and running errands for prostitutes and their clients, according to the court documents.

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When Siripongs and his sister went to live with their mother in Bangkok, living conditions improved, but Siripongs found himself frequently the target of his mother’s violent, alcohol-induced rages.

Family members described Siripongs as being loving and sensitive but easily malleable. As he grew older, he befriended people whom his family considered to be bad influences.

In 1975, he was shot in the forehead while burglarizing a Bangkok department store with his cousin.

After his two-year prison term was cut in half for good behavior, Siripongs spent three months living as a monk in a Bangkok temple. His teacher, Phra Kru Vichitrasadhuvatra, said in court documents that Siripongs was among his best students.

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In Thailand, it is common for men to live a monastic existence at some point in their lives. Siripongs was one of 38 other students in his class who spent their days praying, meditating, learning and begging for alms on the streets.

Rough Childhood Seen as No Excuse

Prosecutors insist that Siripongs’ defenders distort his true character by placing too much emphasis on his difficult childhood. Siripongs did suffer extraordinary hardships, they say, but so have many children in the United States and in large segments of the Third World.

“The notion that childhood pain and suffering automatically mitigate one’s actions insults the generations of people all over the world who suffered far worse childhoods and did not grow up to be murderers and robbers,” wrote Tanizaki in a clemency petition submitted to the governor’s office.

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Tanizaki said the murders were brutal and savage, and that Siripongs has never expressed any remorse for the killings. His callousness was also apparent in the fact that he exchanged Packovan Wattanaporn’s jewelry for cash only hours after the murders.

More disturbing, Tanizaki says, is the fact that Siripongs had needed a job, and that the Wattanaporns, fellow Thai immigrants, had given him one.

“The Wattanaporns extended a charitable hand to Siripongs and it was eventually met by the murderous hands of Siripongs,” Tanizaki writes.

Siripongs’ life and impending execution has forced the local Thai community to wrestle with the death penalty issue. It’s a debate breaking down along generational lines.

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Nampet Panichpant-Michelsen, interim president of the International Thai Leadership Council, said traditional Buddhists do not believe those who do wrong should go unpunished but that the death penalty is an empty act.

“Nothing is to be gained by another act of violence,” Panichpant-Michelsen said of the scheduled execution. “This is not preventing more crimes from being committed in this country.”

Other older Thai-Americans tend to hold similar views and oppose Siripongs’ execution. But younger people are more skeptical.

Fountain Valley resident Pairat “Joe” Pannara, a member of the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles, said his position is more in line with the “newer thinking.”

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“One should consider himself a member of this society, and for the sake of justice in this society everybody should honor the rule of law,” said Pannara, who immigrated to this country 20 years ago.

Pannara said those seeking clemency for Siripongs, including the Thai government, speak out of a sense of kinship to a fellow countryman and because of their religious beliefs.

But religion should have no place in government decisions, said Pannara. “This was a brutal criminal case,” he said. “It has nothing to do with politics or international issues. Thailand should not waste its dignity to help a murderer.”

Some Say Execution Would Only Free Him

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Others, including Wattanaporn, cite their religious beliefs when asking the Thai government to intervene. A Thai consul said Wattanaporn’s plea was pivotal in the government’s decision to send a letter to Wilson urging that the death sentence be commuted.

Many Buddhists say the death penalty would only liberate Siripongs from a lifetime of personal torment.

Thongkham Sriyothin, director of the Meditation Center for the Young Buddhist Assn. of Thailand, wrote in court documents that as a Buddhist and former monk, Siripongs must always live with the responsibility he bears for his part in the crime.

“For Jaturun, the severest punishment is not death, but a life lived entirely in prison, forever contemplating the shame and pain he has brought to others.”

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Killer’s Odyssey

Here are the key dates in the 17-year legal saga of Jaturun “Jay” Siripongs, who is scheduled to be executed Tuesday:

* Dec. 15, 1981 Packovan Wattanaporn and Quach Nguyen found slain in the storage room of the Pantai Market in Garden Grove.

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* Dec. 17, 1981 Siripongs arrested for using Wattanaporn’s credit card while trying to purchase a television set at the Sears store in Westminster.

* Jan.-Feb. 1983 At the one-month trial, an Orange County jury convicts Siripongs on two murder counts after one day of deliberations. The jury recommends the death penalty.

* April 22, 1983 Siripongs sentenced to death.

* Aug. 1989 California Supreme Court declines to review the case.

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* Dec. 1989 U.S. Supreme Court declines to review the case.

* Jan. 1991 California Supreme Court declines to review the case.

* Oct. 1992 U.S. District Court, Central District, denies a motion for new evidentiary hearing.

* July 1994 U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals remands the case for new evidentiary hearing.

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* Oct. 1998 Thai government asks that the death sentence be commuted.

* Oct. 5 U.S. Supreme Court declines to review the case.

* Oct. 16 Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard L. Weatherspoon sets Nov. 17 execution date.

* Nov. 13 Gov. Pete Wilson denies clemency.

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Source: Times reports; Reported by RICHARD MAROSI / Los Angeles Times

The Five Who’ve Been Executed

Five men have been executed in California since the death penalty was reinstated two decades ago:

* Robert Alton Harris, executed April 4, 1992; killed two San Diego teenagers.

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* David Edwin Mason, executed Aug. 24, 1993; killed five people.

* William G. Bonin, executed Feb. 23, 1996; rape, torture and murder of 21 boys and young men.

* Keith Daniel Williams, executed May 3, 1996; killed three people.

* Thomas M. Thompson, executed July 14, 1998; raped and murdered Orange County woman.

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Source: Times reports; Researched by RICHARD MAROSI / Los Angeles Times


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