Truong Dinh slipped into a Van Nuys courtroom under police guard Tuesday, his eyes darting from the seven defendants, once his friends, to the prosecutor seeking the death penalty for five of them.
The slight, 23-year-old Dinh is a gang member who turned state's evidence, the key witness in the murder trial of seven alleged members of the Asian Boyz street gang.
The last gang member who agreed to testify against the Asian Boyz was shot to death the day before his scheduled court appearance. So authorities were taking no chances Tuesday. Los Angeles Police Department officers, some in assault gear, lined up outside the courthouse. Dinh entered and left the courtroom through back hallways.
Dinh looked nervous as he stepped to the witness stand, and testified that all the defendants were gang members, which many of them deny. He said they ambushed their rivals on Tet, the Lunar New Year, in 1995, shooting at them with handguns and assault rifles.
Two people were killed in that attack, and Dinh identified the men he says shot them. As he testified, the accused sat in a row behind their lawyers, wearing casual shirts, displaying no emotion.
The slayings were the first of seven that Deputy Dist. Atty. Laura Baird said the gang committed during a 1995 crime rampage in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. The gang is also accused of 18 attempted murders and five instances of conspiring to commit murder.
Son Thanh Bui, 22, David Evangalista, 23, Bunthoeun Roeung, 22, Sothi Menh, 23, Roatha Buth, 26, Kimorn Nuth, 19, and Ky Tony Ngo, 22, have pleaded not guilty to all charges against them.
"We are here today because seven people were brutally gunned down," Baird said. "They were killed by various members of the Asian Boyz gang."
The Asian Boyz gang was made up of Cambodian, Vietnamese and Filipino members whose families had immigrated in the 1970s. They are accused of follow-home and home invasion robberies, mostly involving victims from their own ethnic communities.
In her opening statements, Baird outlined the details of the crimes. She told of gang members carrying two and three weapons, firing assault rifles and initiating several car-to-car shootings.
Through their lawyers, many of the defendants have denied gang affiliation. Some were college students at the time of the crimes.
Four defense lawyers briefly addressed jurors as the trial opened, stressing the complexity of the case and attacking Dinh's credibility.
Jurors must decide who's telling the truth, as well as keep track of evidence and how it applies in multiple charges against several defendants, defense attorney Morton Borenstein said.
"It's a complex matter, and you as jurors are going to have the task of judging those facts," said Borenstein, who is defending Menh.
Daniel Nardoni, Bui's lawyer, focused on Dinh, saying the gang member was involved in every one of the crimes and has changed his testimony at least four times.
"It didn't take him long to negotiate with the government, to negotiate with the police," Nardoni said.