A mistrial was declared Friday in the case of a Vietnamese refugee accused of shooting a former Saigon housing official after the court learned that a juror had conducted his own investigation at the shooting scene.
Superior Court Judge Jean Rheinheimer, saying she had never seen anything like it in her legal career, set an Aug. 1 contempt of court hearing for juror Charles Dalton of Costa Mesa.
Dalton reportedly visited the scene of the shooting, drew a diagram and brought it to the jury room, and conducted some time tests on his own.
After the mistrial was declared, jurors told attorneys that their informal vote during deliberations had been 9 to 3 to acquit Be Tu Van Tran of attempted murder in the shooting of Tran Khanh Van on March 18 near Van's Westminster real estate office. Van survived the two bullet wounds.
Although juror Dalton had sided with the defense, Tran's attorney, Alan M. May, was furious. May said he was convinced that he could have gotten an acquittal or at least a hung jury, which would have made a retrial more difficult for the prosecution.
"It was the grossest misconduct by a juror I have ever seen," May said.
Rheinheimer ordered that a new trial begin July 21. That had been the date set for Tran's co-defendant, Cu Ngoc Duong, who is accused of driving Tran to Van's office the night of the attack. But May, the attorney for both men, said Duong's trial would follow Tran's.
May had tried to convince the jury that a speeding car spotted by Garden Grove police officers not far from the shooting may have been driven by the actual assailants. Court officials said Dalton apparently tried to determine on his own whether the car had been spotted close enough to the shooting site to substantiate May's theory.
Rheinheimer had instructed jurors--an instruction standard in almost all criminal cases--that they were not to conduct any independent investigations or try to produce any maps or diagrams that are introduced into evidence. Those instructions, in fact, had been reiterated to the jurors by attorneys from both sides.
The jurors were given the case Thursday morning. Dalton apparently had conducted his tests when the deliberations began. But Rheinheimer was not told about what Dalton had done until Friday morning, when the jury foreman sent her a note expressing concern about possible juror misconduct.
Tran, 30, a part-time truck driver for the Los Angeles Times, confessed to Westminster police that he shot Van because of statements Van reportedly had made urging normalization of relations between the United States and the communist government in Vietnam.
But May accused his own client during the trial of lying, either because he wanted to be a political martyr, or because he was covering up for someone else. Numerous Vietnamese residents who attended the two-week trial believe that Tran confessed in order to protect someone else.