ORANGE — A judge on Thursday ordered that Kirn Young Kim, 17, one of five teens accused of fatally bludgeoning honor student Stuart Tay, be tried in adult court, where he could face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Kim was allegedly the lookout during the 20-minute beating in a Buena Park garage on New Year's Eve. But because he knew about the murder plot two days in advance and helped dig Tay's grave, according to a psychologist's testimony, the case was too heinous for the juvenile justice system, Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Francisco P. Briseno found.
Briseno agreed with Kim's defense attorney that the Fullerton youth is immature and vulnerable to peer pressure but said the crime was too horrible to permit him to remain in Juvenile Court. The judge issued similar rulings earlier this week in the cases of two other defendants, Mun Bong Kang, 17, and Abraham Acosta, 16.
"The minor by his demeanor, by his appearance--from where I sit--is extremely young," Briseno said of Kim, who sat, crying, in the courtroom, with his mother sobbing behind him. "Nevertheless, since he knew in advance what was going to take place, I don't think he is fit for Juvenile Court."
The fourth juvenile suspect in the case, Charles Bae Choe, 17, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder Wednesday. In exchange for his promise to testify against the others, Choe was allowed to stay in the juvenile system, where the stiffest penalty would still set him free by his 25th birthday.
Robert Chan, 18, the accused ringleader of the crime and the only adult in the group, has pleaded not guilty and remains in Orange County Jail. He is eligible for the death penalty.
In court Thursday, psychologist Martha Rogers testified that because Kim was raised by strict parents who demanded that he respect and obey his elders, the youth was extremely vulnerable to peer pressure. On Wednesday, his parents and aunt begged the judge to keep Kim in Juvenile Court, noting that he still sleeps with his baby blankets, snuggles with his father while watching television, has never had a girlfriend and likes playing with small children.
Pressed by Deputy Dist. Atty. Lewis Rosenblum Thursday, Rogers revealed that Kim told her that he knew of Chan's plot to kill Tay, helped Chan and Acosta dig the grave, and drove to Buena Park behind Tay to ensure that no one followed him to the murder site.
Rogers also testified that months before the murder, Kim took Scholastic Aptitude Tests on behalf of other students, forging their names, in exchange for money.
About two dozen of Kim's relatives, as well as his church pastor, attended the hearing, often closing their eyes in prayer or crying openly in court.
As he pronounced his ruling, Briseno, too, became emotional.
"No matter what I decide, what is to you a nightmare will not end," he said from the bench to Kim's parents. "I haven't seen a better mother or father here, and I don't think there's anything you could have done to (prevent) this."
Before the bailiff returned the handcuffed youth to Juvenile Hall, Sook Kim, his mother, clung tightly.
"No matter what, you're my son," she wailed. "I love you, OK."