Two women were ordered Tuesday to stand trial for murder in the death of a 23-year-old woman who was beaten during an altercation outside a popular Santa Ana nightspot.
The ruling followed a two-day hearing with attorneys dissecting the shaky and sometimes chaotic scene, captured on the cellphones of bystanders.
Lawyers for Vanesa Tapia Zavala and Candace Marie Brito, who are accused of killing Kim Pham on Jan. 18, said it was Pham who instigated the brawl by throwing the first punch, then jumping on a woman who had tumbled to the ground.
But prosecutors said it was Zavala and Brito, two friends from Santa Ana who were out for the night with friends, who escalated the situation into a homicide by punching and then kicking Pham into unconsciousness.
Neither of the women reacted visibly to the ruling by Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Borris. Both have pleaded not guilty and remain in custody in lieu of $1-million bail.
The case has drawn enormous attention, in part because of initial reports that dozens of bystanders stood around, some shooting video, failing to intervene as the fight escalated. The prosecutor, though, said that more than 15 people tried to come to Pham’s aid.
Friends and family have described Pham as a bubbly, high-achieving woman who recently graduated from Chapman University and aspired to be a journalist. Defense attorneys painted a darker picture, saying she had been drinking the night of the fight, was argumentative and “lit the match” that started the brawl.
“I think the tiara’s off Ms. Pham,” said Michael Molfetta, Brito’s attorney.
In court, Molfetta said that the video images failed to point toward his client’s guilt and that the accounts of witnesses were conflicting.
“What you have is a series of blows. You don’t know which one caused death,” the defense attorney said.
Later, outside the courtroom, Molfetta said: “At best this is a manslaughter case.”
Over two days of testimony, cellphone images were shown over and over as police described the action and tried to pick out the suspects and the victim.
In one video, Pham appears to throw what police said was the first punch in the fight. Pham can also be seen straddling and hitting a woman on the ground
But on the witness stand, Santa Ana Det. Leo Rodriguez stopped the video at another point to show Brito punching and later kicking Pham.
Toward the end of the video, another woman — identified by Rodriguez as Zavala — is seen kicking at the ground in the direction of Pham. Moments later, Pham appears to go limp.
“The two defendants kicked her in the head, and that’s what killed her,” said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Troy Pino. “The videos don’t lie.”
A pathologist who testified said Pham died from blunt-force trauma, but could not say whether it resulted from a punch, kick or from having her head slammed on the pavement.
The defense attorneys accused Rodriguez of making up his mind about their clients’ guilt before collecting all the evidence. Zavala’s lawyer said that when his client told police that an “Asian girl” punched her in the face, the detective waited four days to take photos of her injuries.
“You’re not supposed to take sides when you’re doing that job,” said Kenneth Reed, Zavala’s attorney.
In an unexpected turn, a detective revealed Monday that she had gone undercover, posing as an inmate to try to coax Zavala into talking, even though the woman had refused to talk with police and requested an attorney. The judge stopped the detective from testifying further and ultimately excused her.
But on Tuesday, a single comment from that secret jailhouse conversation was read into the record.
“She hit me first,” Zavala told the detective, referring to Pham. “I acted in self-defense.”
Reed said he had no knowledge of the recording until his client recognized the detective in court.
Friends who went to Valley High School in Santa Ana with Zavala described her as a “kind person,” someone who “would not wish what had happened to Ms. Pham.
“This is not like her at all. She’s a good girl,” said Josh Gutierrez of Garden Grove. “She was always a good girl.”
Pham’s family was also in court during the hearing.
“People in society should know that when they commit a crime, there’s a punishment,” said Andy Pham, the victim’s older brother.
“I don’t think any of us are closer to knowing what happened that night,” Molfetta added, “when it happened and why it happened.”