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Deaf Killer's Fate Rests on Mental Health

Prosecutors and defense disagree whether a Laguna Hills man was sane when he stabbed neighbor. Judge found racial hatred as motive.

September 21, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

The two young men grew up next door to each other. They spent hours playing video games in each other's living rooms. As they got older, they shared cigarettes in the driveways and backyards of their Laguna Hills homes.

All of which makes the scene in an Orange County courtroom that much harder to fathom.One of the young men, Christopher Hearn, 20, has been convicted of murdering the other, Kenneth Chiu, his then 17-year-old neighbor of more than a decade. The slaying took place July 30, 2001, shortly after Chiu returned home from an evening out with friends.

Hearn waived his right to be tried by a jury, and the Orange County Superior Court judge who presided over his case, Kazuharu Makino, found that Hearn's actions were motivated by racial hatred. He faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The convicted man's attorney, hoping to get her client committed to a hospital instead of prison, is preparing to argue that Hearn's actions -- a late-night stabbing after the two had finished sharing a cigarette in the backyard of Hearn's home -- resulted from his insanity.

The second phase of the trial will determine whether Hearn, who was born deaf and unable to speak, was sane at the time of the murder.

The slaying has created a seemingly unbridgeable rift between the families, both of whom moved out of their homes immediately after the slaying. The Chiu family, Taiwanese Americans who prospered in the hotel business, now live in Irvine. The Hearns, a close-knit family in which the father is president of a computer software corporation, moved into a hotel until they could sell their home and eventually settled in another South County community.

But both families, who have shunned public comment on the case, meet daily in the courtroom of Department 30, where the Hearns and their relatives occupy the first row behind their shackled son, while the Chius gather on the other side.

Christopher Hearn has communicated -- both with the police who arrested and questioned him, and with the judge presiding over his bench trial -- by sign language through an interpreter.

In his initial, hourlong interrogation by police shortly after his arrest, Hearn reportedly said he "just hated seeing" Chiu, who "acts like a Chinese gang [member], and I just thought he might be dangerous. Chinese and blacks have weapons."

On the night of the slaying, Hearn had just finished doing some painting in his family's garage and was going inside for a drink when he glanced over the low fence between their homes and spotted Chiu eating fast food in his kitchen with a friend.

While his family slept upstairs, Hearn went out to his truck to retrieve one of his mother's kitchen knives that he had stashed beneath the front seat for protection. He then went back inside his home and "waited and planned," he told police.

While waiting for Chiu's friend to leave, Hearn concealed the knife behind his back, and slipped on a pair of rubber gloves. As soon as Chiu's friend drove off, Hearn walked outside and asked Chiu for a cigarette, before luring him into the garage and then into the Hearns' backyard, according to court records.

After several minutes, Chiu was getting ready to leave when Hearn tapped him on the shoulder and stabbed him. Hearn stabbed Chiu 25 more times.

"I just left, you know, proud that I acted like a Marine, like a KKK [Ku Klux Klan] person," police quoted Hearn as saying. "It's not my fault. I just followed what the government said."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Carolyn Carlisle-Raines argued that Hearn grew up with little supervision in a household where racial hatred was acceptable.

She said signs of Hearn's antisocial leanings first surfaced when he began smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol in the eighth grade.

Carlisle-Raines said that Hearn has been faking his emotional instability and that the delusions he experiences are the result of drug and alcohol abuse.

Deputy Public Defender Lisa Kopelman has argued that Hearn has the vocabulary of a third-grader, was sexually abused as a child and suffers from psychotic episodes.

His parents testified that they had tried to seek help for their son but he refused -- refusals they were powerless to overrule as he grew to 185 pounds.

Makino could rule this week.

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