VAN NUYS — Relying heavily on the testimony of two admitted thugs, a jury Monday convicted the leader of the notorious Asian Boyz street gang of three murders, seven attempted murders and conspiracy, crimes for which he could be executed.
The verdicts came at the end of a four- month trial during which the father of the state's key witness was gunned down at his San Jose home. Authorities suspect the defendants were involved in the unsolved crime.
Sothi Menh, 24, and two other defendants were convicted for their roles in a 1995 crime spree that began with the ambush of a rival Latino gang on the lunar new year and included a series of car-to-car shootings that left seven people dead. The verdicts for the charges against the remaining four defendants will be read today.
Police said the case could result in more death penalties than any other trial in state history. Five defendants initially faced death, but one was spared that fate Monday. David Evangalista, a former honor student and hospital volunteer, was convicted of only one murder, rather than the four he was originally charged with.
The jurors convicted both Menh and Son Bui, the 22-year-old cousin of the state's key witness, of capital murder. Verdicts due today could send two other defendants to a penalty trial, where the six-man, six-woman jury will be asked whether the defendants should be put to death or spend the rest of their lives in prison.
The question promises compelling arguments.
Prosecutors will paint the defendants as ruthless killers. They will point out not only the crimes of which they were convicted but also plan to offer other killings police attribute to the gang, but for which the defendants have not been charged.
Defense attorneys will portray their clients as young men who were scarred by the never-ending violence they witnessed as youths in war-torn Cambodia and the so-called killing fields that some of them are said to have lived through as children.
"In order for the jury to believe that the defendant is not a monster with a callous disregard for human life, it is incumbent upon us to show that this defendant has been in a continuous state of war with his environment from the time he was 3 years old," attorney Jack Stone, who is defending Roatha Buth, wrote in a motion. "At a very tender age, he watched his two older brothers, 6 and 9, gunned down by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia." The Asian Boyz gang is 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 in which they mainly targeted members of their own ethnic communities.
Authorities say that the crime spree for which the defendants stood trial was a violent bid to become the most-feared Asian gang in Los Angeles. Detectives say the defendants targeted not only rival gang members, but also persons they mistook for gang members, as well as absolute strangers.
The trial was dominated by two admitted gang members who turned state's evidence after they were arrested for a freeway shooting.
From the witness stand, Truong Dinh and Paul Prado recounted a deadly ambush on a rival Latino gang, an armed mission to seek out and shoot other gang members and running gun battles in which Asian Boyz members fired two and three weapons, then delivered execution-style blows to their dead or dying rivals.
In her arguments to the jury, Deputy Dist. Atty. Laura Baird said the gang members turned witnesses remembered the shootings in detail "because those shootings were spectacular. It was just like a movie."
But defense attorneys hammered at the two men's motives, pointing out that they received immunity for their testimony. The lawyers also picked at inconsistencies and used them to bolster their arguments that the state's key witnesses are opportunistic liars who are laying blame on the innocent to save themselves.
The trial was marked by tight security that became even tighter when Dinh's father was executed at his home. Authorities were protecting Dinh but had not extended protection to his family because they said they thought that killing a relative was taboo even for this gang, which was once before suspected of killing a witness to a murder trial.
Officers in assault gear have periodically blocked the surrounding streets when the defendants arrive and leave the courthouse. Armed district attorney investigators are guarding the prosecutors around the clock and sheriff's deputies are guarding the judge. Seven bailiffs block every entrance and exit to the courtroom. The strain on security was so great that the county's head criminal judge said that the case should have been held in the high-security courtrooms of the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles.
Two jurors asked to be excused from the case after hearing about the killing of Dong Dinh.