But they say Chinh, who dropped out of high school at 16 and left home two years later, was led astray by the people he turned to for survival. They argue that the Johnson murder weapon--a .38 caliber stainless-steel revolver--was not used by Chinh. They hope to raise enough doubt in jurors' minds to block a sentence of death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Much of the testimony has had to be translated into English from Cantonese, the native language of Chinh and several of the eyewitnesses. After seven years in America, Chinh still speaks poor English. And throughout the lengthy proceedings, a court-appointed interpreter has sat beside the frail young man and whispered into his right ear a Cantonese version of the English testimony.
Pallid and slightly disheveled in a wrinkled sweater and flared polyester slacks, Chinh sits facing the jury with a bewildered, frozen look. There is something not quite formed about him, something still early and budding that gives him the look of a baby bird. If he understands the import of the case against him, he seems to lack the necessary context.
Almost three years to the day after the crime, Chinh has refused to betray his partners even as they have betrayed him. It was the co-defendant who led police to Chinh on Dec. 20. And it was Chinh's best friend, the state's witness, who shored up any holes in the prosecution's case. Yet Chinh has refused to provide information that could damage them and possibly help his case. It's as if through some unspoken fealty he can regain his honor.
"Nam looked upon these guys as older brothers. They took him under their wings. He was beholden to them," Charles Gessler, Chinh's lead attorney, says. "Sure he had free will and could have said no when they asked to be a part of the team. But that wasn't the reality."
Prosecutors have a different view. "These weren't reflex actions. It's not the profile of a sweet soul," says Terry Adamson, one of the two deputy district attorneys trying the case. "He's a coldblooded murderer who has shown no remorse."
NAM CHINH was 9 years old when the Communist forces of North Vietnam captured his hometown of Cho Lon, a suburb of Saigon. His father, a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, had died of a kidney ailment when Chinh was 6. His mother, Mui Vong, supported the family of eight children--five girls and three boys, Nam being the third youngest--on a small military pension and what she could scrape together by selling fruit and cigarettes on the street. But the pension checks stopped coming once the Communists took over, and Nam and his siblings had to drop out of school and find work. He never finished the third grade.
He and a brother, Bao, five years older, moved to a rural farming area 30 miles outside Saigon where they lived by themselves, growing beans, rice, corn and peanuts. What the family couldn't eat was sold for a small profit at city markets. In Saigon, the sisters rolled cigarettes and wrapped candy in makeshift factories.
For the ethnic Chinese, who composed a merchant class that was anathema to communism, life was particularly hard. In 1978, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam undertook a campaign of persecution and expulsion against its Chinese population. The final straw for many parents was seeing their sons sent to the front lines in yet another war, this time in Cambodia.
With a gold wafer representing a month of wages, Mui Vong bought her eldest son, Bao, 17, a spot on a small sail-boat. After a 26-day journey in which the boat was blown off course three times, Bao reached Hong Kong. Three months later--at the inflated price of 14 gold wafers--Nam, 12, and his sister, Mui, 23, crowded onto a 66-foot-long wooden boat with 350 other refugees. Three days later, they reached Malaysia. The country, overwhelmed by boat people, had to build another camp to accommodate the newcomers.
After a year in Malaysia, their home a 12-by-20-foot tarpaulin-enclosed room shared with two dozen other refugees, Nam and his sister were resettled in the San Gabriel Valley. They moved into a small apartment with an older sister and her husband, who had come to the Los Angeles area the year before. Since 1975, nearly 850,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, the majority from Vietnam, have been resettled in the United States. An estimated 100,000--the nation's largest concentration--live in Los Angeles County alone.
The alienation of these immigrant youths is perhaps nowhere more sharply etched than in the western San Gabriel Valley, 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, where a community of 30,000 Chinese-Vietnamese has taken root over the past decade. Their arrival resounds in a collection of new cafes, restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores that line Valley Boulevard from Alhambra to Rosemead. There is no better place to meet and measure the young generation than here at night.