SANTA ANA — The remaining two teen-agers on trial for the 1992 New Year's Eve murder of honor student Stuart A. Tay of Orange were unwitting pawns manipulated by the teen who masterminded the brutal slaying, defense attorneys told a jury Tuesday.
Abraham Acosta, 17, of Buena Park and Kirn Kim, 18, of Fullerton, never intended to kill Tay and were tricked into participating in the slaying by Robert Chan, 19, of Fullerton, who has already been convicted of orchestrating the murder, defense attorneys said.
The prosecution contends that Acosta was the first to strike the 17-year-old Tay with a baseball bat, while Kim sat in a car nearby, acting as a lookout. But defense attorneys told an Orange County Superior Court jury that the teens were unaware that murder was planned until it was too late.
During its opening statements Tuesday, the defense sought to portray Acosta and Kim as loners who were looking for acceptance and eager to pal around with Chan, a one-time candidate for class valedictorian at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton.
The prosecution made its opening statements Monday, the first day of the trial.
Deputy Public Defender Denise Gragg said Acosta is a mentally retarded youth who played the role of class clown to get attention. Acosta relished the attention Chan gave him and believed he was participating in a prank to scare--not kill--the victim by striking him with a bat, Gragg said.
Acosta "was a prime subject for Mr. Chan," Gragg told jurors, adding that the first blow only angered Tay and was not hard enough to do serious injury. "All (Acosta) knew about was a plan, an attempt to frighten somebody, rough somebody up."
After Acosta struck Tay, Chan began beating the victim unconscious as Acosta looked on in shock, according to Acosta's lawyer.
"He had no idea what to do and was scared to death," Gragg told jurors.
Kim had waited outside and did not know a murder was taking place in Acosta's garage, said defense attorney Allan H. Stokke.
"Kirn Kim was out of the garage when the incident took place," Stokke said. "Kirn Kim, I think you will see, had not a clue about what was really happening."
Tay was beaten with baseball bats and forced to swallow rubbing alcohol. His nose and mouth were taped shut and he was buried in a shallow grave in Acosta's back yard.
Gragg told jurors that Acosta did not realize what the hole in the back yard was for until Chan ordered Tay's body placed in it.
Chan could be sent to prison for life without parole when he is sentenced this summer. Mun Bong Kang, 19, of Fullerton, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and could face the same sentence for his role in the slaying.
The four teens have been prosecuted as adults. A fifth defendant, Charles Choe, 18, of Fullerton, was prosecuted as a juvenile after he agreed to testify against the other teen-agers. He is expected to be released from the California Youth Authority when he turns 25.
Choe was the first witness to testify Tuesday and told jurors that Acosta and Kim were well aware that a murder was planned.
The defendants all attended Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton. Tay attended Foothill High School in Santa Ana.
Chan and Tay became acquainted while planning to rob an Anaheim computer-parts dealer, Choe told jurors. When Chan learned that Tay was lying about his name and age, Chan feared Tay was a police informant and decided to kill him, Choe said.