Three Chinatown gang members were convicted by separate juries Thursday of murdering human rights activist and Oscar-winning actor Haing Ngor, who escaped Cambodia's infamous "killing fields" only to be gunned down outside his Los Angeles apartment in a 1996 robbery.
The convictions of Tak Sun Tan, 21, and 20-year-olds Jason Chan and Indra Lim came on the same day that authorities in Cambodia confirmed the fatal heart attack of Pol Pot, whose murderous regime claimed more than 1 million lives. Today, in fact, marks the 23rd grim anniversary of the day Pol Pot took power.
That fact was not lost Thursday on friends and family of Ngor, who authorities believe was shot after refusing to hand over a tiny locket carrying a photo of his late wife.
"Pol Pot is dead, and the memory of my godfather lives on," said Ngor's goddaughter Sundary Rama, 28.
The convictions of Tan, Chan and Lim also was marked by history of another kind: it was the first time in the county, and only the second time in California, that three separate juries simultaneously weighed evidence in a single crime.
Although Tan's jury did not accept the prosecution's theory that he was the gunman, the unanimity of the verdicts stood as some testament to the defendants' roles in Ngor's killing, authorities said.
"I think the juries did an incredible job of cutting through all the clutter . . . [and] putting the three people who committed this horrible crime away," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Hum, who tried all three cases before Superior Court Judge J.D. Smith.
Although the criminal histories of the defendants and the circumstances of Ngor's slaying did not lead prosecutors to seek the death penalty, each of the three men will serve long prison sentences for their convictions on first-degree murder and second-degree robbery charges.
Chan, who faces life in prison without the possibility of parole, will be sentenced May 19, along with Lim, who stands to serve 26 years to life.
Tan, who has two prior convictions for robbery, faces a prison sentence of up to 81 years to life and will return to court Monday for a third-strike proceeding before a jury.
The verdicts, which came after a six-week trial, will be appealed by attorneys for the defendants.
"We were all shocked that the 36 jurors came back [with convictions]," said Joy Wilensky, Lim's deputy alternate public defender.
"They really did not have solid evidence to prove that these kids had anything to do with this murder. . . . What they heard in common was that these kids were all gang members and had been involved in snatching chains" in Chinatown before Ngor's slaying, Wilensky said.
Indeed, defense attorneys noted, there was at least an inconsistency in the verdicts given the fact that the only defendant accused of actually shooting Ngor was found not guilty of that firearms charge. Moreover, the attorneys argued, the juries were improperly allowed to hear prosecution evidence that, by law, had no connection to the crime.
"They managed to get in prior bad acts. They managed to get in calling these [defendants] gangsters and gang members and you put that before juries today and they don't get past it," Wilensky said.
Chan's attorney, Ivan Klein, said, "There was a laundry list of judicial errors."
But prosecutor Hum, threading together a circumstantial evidence case that included no murder weapon or eyewitnesses, disagreed, arguing that there was more than sufficient evidence linking the men to Ngor's killing Feb. 25, 1996.
During the trial, which began with lengthy jury selection, Hum argued that Ngor was shot to death in the carport of his Beaudry Avenue apartment after Tan, Chan and Lim, all high on crack cocaine, robbed him to get money to buy more drugs.
Hum said that the trio, members of a gang called the Oriental Lazy Boys, took Ngor's $6,000 Rolex watch but shot him with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun when he refused to part with a gold locket containing the picture of his late wife, who died in childbirth.
Acclaimed Film Role
Her death occurred as Ngor, a physician, attempted to return to her side but could not help her without giving away his true identity. Ngor was imprisoned and tortured during the war, losing a finger. He escaped to the United States via Thailand in 1980, and four years later won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his portrayal of real life Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran in the 1984 movie "The Killing Fields."
The film detailed the murderous rampage of the Khmer Rouge, the Communist guerrillas who took over the country in 1975. Nearly 2 million died during the war, more than half at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Ngor's overnight leap to prominence gave him a platform to attack the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and to lobby for human rights, work he continued up until his death.