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2 Charged in Youths' Beating May Avoid Prison : Courts: Judge says he feels penalty should, at most, be a year in jail for beach attack on two Valley teens.

July 01, 1995|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VISTA — After emotional testimony from the victims and defendants, a judge Friday indicated that he feels the two college students who savagely beat two teen-agers from the San Fernando Valley should, at most, be sentenced to a year in County Jail rather than the eight years in state prison requested by prosecutors.

"This is what we were afraid of," said William F. Powers Jr., a Chatsworth attorney and father of one of the victims. "I don't think the penalty fits the crime."

Before passing sentence, Superior Court Judge Runston G. (Tony) Maino sent Derek Ward Stewart, 21, and Nam Le Pham, 19, to state prison for a 90-day psychiatric evaluation to "make sure I'm not dealing with psycho-killer types here."

Stewart and Pham had pleaded guilty to an Oct. 2 attack at San Onofre State Beach on Brian Powers, 19, and a second youth. The beach, 40 miles north of San Diego, is one of the more idyllic spots on the Southern California coast.

Stewart's parents said they were confident psychologists at the state prison will come to the same conclusion as those hired by the Probation Department: that their son and his friend are not hardened criminals who should be sent to state prison.

"These are good kids, never in trouble before," Darcia Stewart said.

Powers, a star baseball player, suffered severe shoulder injuries that have put his hopes for a collegiate and major league career in doubt. The second victim, also 19, suffered a severely injured penis and remains in great pain.

Stewart, a student at San Diego State University, and Pham, a student at Mesa College in San Diego, begged the judge for mercy. Both expressed remorse.

Stewart's attorney said his client is so guilt-stricken that he has had to seek psychological care for depression. Pham's attorney said his client has developed an ulcer because of his concern for the victims.

"I often pray for these two men," Pham said amid tears. "As many times as I've apologized, I can only hope that [the victims] accept my apology."

Stewart said he and Pham had been misunderstood at the preliminary hearing when they appeared to the judge to be smirking during testimony.

"I have not been a violent person in the past and will not be a violent person in the future," Stewart said.

The altercation occurred after Powers, his friend, and their girlfriends asked a party of a dozen or more students camping next to them--many of them members of the same fraternity at San Diego State University--to turn down their music because it was approaching midnight. The fraternity members had, according to testimony, been drinking heavily.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Valliant said an eight-year prison sentence is justified because the attack was "cowardly" and akin to a rape and sexual mutilation. The victims were outnumbered 4 to 1.

But attorneys for the defendants said regardless of the punishment meted out by Maino, both men have suffered because as convicted felons they will not be able to pursue their career goals. Stewart was interested in law enforcement, Pham in teaching.

The 19-year-old whose penis was injured, and who has asked not to be named by reporters, did not attend the hearing. But his mother read an emotional statement from him in which he mentioned the horror of being the object of jokes and snickering.

"The staring eyes and the silent laughter are more than I can bear," said his mother, reading his statement. "I do not need another nightmare."

Maino said he saw the case in similar terms as the Probation Department, which recommended one year in County Jail and five years' probation. Because of severe overcrowding in county jails, most first-time offenders sentenced to a year serve only a few months. The judge set sentencing for Sept. 29.

Maino said he was swayed by the fact, as emphasized by defense attorneys, that neither Stewart nor Pham were responsible for the sexual attack. That injury was allegedly inflicted by a powerfully built wrestler who initiated the brawl and is being sought for arrest by authorities.

Brian Powers, a graduate of Chaminade College Preparatory High School in West Hills, testified that Stewart and Pham should be treated as severely as if they were members of the Crips or Bloods street gangs. He said he felt he was going to die during the attack and is now unable to enjoy the beach in Southern California.

"I feel I have to be armed to go to the beach or have bodyguards," he said. "I guess I was naive."

The courtroom was packed with Delta Chi fraternity brothers showing support for Stewart and Pham and by family members of the victims and defendants. Both victims have undergone surgery and the extent of their recovery is not yet apparent.

Valliant disputed the notion that Stewart and Pham were not responsible for the penis injury. While they may not have done the injury with their own hands, he argued, they prevented Powers from going to the aid of his friend when the melee began.

The fight was only broken up by two other campers not involved in the dispute. Witnesses at the preliminary hearing in the spring testified that the fraternity campers the next morning were laughing and boasting of the beating they had inflicted.

Neither defendant has a prior criminal history. Pham is a pianist and teacher's aide. Stewart was recuperating from cancer surgery.

"We're not dealing with thugs, criminals, gangbangers," said Mitchell Robinson, attorney for Pham. "We're dealing with nice young kids who did the wrong thing."

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