More than 150 students, friends and supporters, many of Chinese descent, flooded a downtown Los Angeles courthouse Tuesday as four teenagers pleaded not guilty to murder charges in the beating death of a USC graduate student.
A deputy stood on a bench outside the courtroom, shouting warnings about recording video in the hallway before dozens of spectators filed in. Inside the courtroom, people sat shoulder-to-shoulder, holding bags and purses in their laps.
About 70 more students stood outside in the hall, waiting patiently to hear the outcome.
The teenage defendants -- Jonathan Del Carmen, 19; Andrew Garcia, 18; Alberto Ochoa, 17; and Alejandra Guerrero, 16 -- were dressed in baggy jail-issued clothes as deputies escorted them into the courtroom. Del Carmen kept his hands in his pockets. Garcia’s were chained to his waist.
One by one, the not-guilty pleas were entered. Judge Renee Korn ordered the four to be held without bail until their next hearing on Sept. 12.
The teens have been charged with murder in the July 24 death of Xinran Ji, a 24-year-old USC graduate student who police say was attacked near campus as he walked home from a study group. Sources said evidence indicated Ji tried to escape his attackers, only to be assaulted a second time.
Despite a head injury, Ji managed to get back to his apartment on nearby 30th Street. His roommate found his body later that morning.
A criminal complaint alleges Garcia, Ochoa and Guerrero used a bat in the attack. Authorities believe Del Carmen drove the car that night, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty against Garcia and Del Carmen. Ochoa and Guerrero are not subject to the death penalty because of their ages, prosecutors said, and instead would face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.
Under California law, prosecutors have discretion in certain crimes, including murder, to charge a minor as an adult -- as they have in this case. The courts, however, have ruled that minors are not subject to the death penalty.
Prosecutors allege that after the attack, the teens drove to Dockweiler Beach, where Garcia, Ochoa and Guerrero approached a man and a woman. The teens allegedly robbed the woman, but the man escaped and flagged down police officers who were patrolling the area.
Garcia, Ochoa and Guerrero were charged with second-degree robbery, attempted second-degree robbery and assault with a deadly weapon in connection with the Dockweiler incident. A 14-year-old girl detained by police at the scene was also charged with seven felony counts.
The attorneys for Del Carmen, Garcia and Ochoa declined to comment after Tuesday’s arraignment. Their families also attended the hearing, but only Garcia’s mother spoke to a reporter.
“All I can say is I’m trusting in the Lord,” Rosalie Garcia told The Times.
Ji’s death rattled the university, but particularly its Chinese community. Two years ago, two Chinese graduate students were shot and killed in a botched robbery not far from campus. Six months later, a man opened fire outside an on-campus Halloween party, injuring four people who were not students.
As a result, the university rolled out a series of security improvements both on and off campus. The latest were announced Friday, and include more non-armed security “ambassadors” in the neighborhoods surrounding USC, and mandatory safety training for incoming international graduate students.
After Monday’s hearing was over, dozens of supporters crowded upstairs in the courthouse as a representative for Ji’s family spoke to reporters.
Some held poster-sized photos of Ji; others pictures of his parents sobbing in front of an Alhambra funeral home.
Three held signs that read simply: “Justice for Xinran Ji.”