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Battle Over Death Sentences for 4 Asian Gang Members Begins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If nothing else, the prosecutors who want four gang members put to death for a long list of murders and the defense lawyers fighting to save their lives agree on this much: Now is the time for sympathy.

For prosecutors, it is sympathy for the victims and the heartache their pointless and violent deaths brought to those who loved them.

The defense hopes that the jurors instead will have sympathy for the Asian Boyz gang members, some of whom lived their early years in the work camps known as Cambodia’s “killing fields.”

As she addressed the jury on the death penalty issue for the first time, Deputy Dist. Atty. Laura Baird pointed to a diagram of photos of the defendants surrounded by the faces of 29 people authorities say the gang members victimized.

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In his opening remarks to the jury, defense lawyer Jack Stone, hoping to gain his clients a life sentence, narrated his client Roatha Buth’s life from about his 6th to his 10th birthday--years in which he watched two siblings die of starvation, was so weak from malnutrition that he could not swat flies from his face, and worked in chest-high water harvesting rice.

When Buth and his family finally left for the Philippines, then the United States, Stone said he came to a mostly Latino neighborhood in Van Nuys where children picked on him at school because he didn’t speak the language.

“All of this evidence is not intended to play on your emotions,” Stone said. “It’s intended to show who he is and why he is.”

Stone is expected to call family members to recount those years and a psychologist to testify to their effect on his client.

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“I don’t contest that Roatha Buth did very bad things in his life,” Stone told the jurors. “We’re trying to make you sympathetic to the kind of life Roatha Buth was forced to live--through no fault of his own--and brought him here today.”

No sooner had he finished than Baird, the prosecutor, again brought up the crimes for which the jury has found the defendants to blame--and three others they had not before been asked to judge.

Her first witness was a woman who was beaten and whose husband was killed by three home invasion robbers--allegedly members of the gang.

The couple’s oldest girl, now 9, refuses to talk about the crime or

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go to her father’s grave on the anniversary of his death--a day when her siblings write messages to him on balloons and watch them disappear into the sky, where they are sure he will get them.

The youngest, convinced that her father lives on the moon, will not go to sleep until she sees that celestial body and can bid her dead father a good night.

Two weeks ago, the jury convicted the gang of six murders and 16 attempted murders in a 1995 crime spree that authorities say was its bid to become the most feared Asian gang in Los Angeles.

The jury found that Buth, Sothi Menh, Bunthoeun Roeung and Son Thanh Bui committed special circumstance murders, which make them eligible for the death sentence.

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The jury will not hear details of the killing of the state’s key witness’ father, who was gunned down at the doorstep of his San Jose home during the trial.

Authorities were protecting Truong Dinh, but had not extended protection to his family because they said they thought that killing a relative was taboo even for this gang, which once before was suspected of killing a witness.

The three other gang members who were convicted for their roles in the 1995 crime rampage, David Evangalista, Ky Tony Ngo and Kimorn Nuth, are not eligible for the death sentence. They will be sentenced separately in several weeks.

Ngo and Evangalista face a maximum of 45 years and six life terms for a murder, conspiracy and six attempted murders. Nuth, who was underage when the killings occurred, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole because he committed multiple premeditated murders and ambushed three victims.

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