Robin Kyu Cho is shown during his trial in June. Cho was convicted last week… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
A Los Angeles jury on Friday spared the life of a man convicted of killing a 2-year-old boy, his mother and his nanny, finding that the man should instead receive life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2003 murders.
The panel deliberated less than a day before deciding against the death penalty for Robin Kyu Cho, 53, who was convicted last week of three counts of murder for fatally shooting the three people in the family's Miracle Mile-area apartment. The gruesomeness of the murders, in which a toddler was shot and the 30-year-old mother was bound and gagged with packaging tape, shocked Los Angeles' large Korean community.
Cho, who lived three floors below the victims, was arrested six years after the murders when his DNA was matched to genetic material found at the scene.
Byung Chul Song, whose son and wife were slain, said Friday he had been hoping for the death penalty and was disappointed by the jury's decision. For years leading up to Cho's arrest, police considered Song the primary suspect in his family's murder.
"When I think about what I've been through ... it's impossible to put in words," he said.
Kris Kim, daughter of the nanny, Eun Sik Min, said even though she had wanted the death penalty, she was just relieved the man will pay for his crime.
"Even as a 30, 40-year-old, you still need your mother," she said. "Even if he had received the death penalty, that's a hole that won't be filled."
During the penalty phase trial this week, Cho's attorney asked the jury to focus on the issue of "lingering doubt." Even though jurors had found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, attorney Andrew Flier contended there were questions that remained unanswered — including why Cho, an insurance salesman and a married father of two, would commit the murders.
"The case just doesn't make sense; the issue of motive just isn't there," Flier told jurors in arguments Thursday. Other than the crime itself, he contended, "you didn't hear one negative thing about Mr. Cho."
Cho's defense called to the stand the younger of his two sons, a 14-year-old boy. He testified that he loves his father, and that his father told him to be good to his mother and keep his grades up.
Flier said a juror told him after Friday's verdict that "the lingering doubt was very powerful." Their first straw vote at the beginning of deliberation was 8-4 for life, the juror said, according to Flier.
He said Cho was emotional about the verdict, and continued to proclaim his innocence.
"If there is any hesitation, at least we don't have the ultimate punishment imposed," Flier said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Frank Santoro emphasized to jurors the brutality of the murders, calling them "sophisticated and deliberate." He also pointed to evidence that after an initial police interview in 2009, Cho went to a clothing store parking lot and threw away .38-caliber bullets wrapped in a newspaper, which the prosecutor contended showed the man's "consciousness of guilt."
Even though the boy was just 2 years old, he would know fear and pain, Santoro said. The prosecutor asked jurors to imagine the last moments of the 30-year-old mother, Chi Hyon, who was probably killed after seeing her son's body. He cited a police officer's testimony that there was what appeared to be a dried tear on the mother's cheek.
"Show him the same mercy as he showed that child, which is none," Santoro said.
Santoro also played for jurors the 911 recording with the voice of Cosmos Chang, Chi Hyon's mother, who discovered the victims in the two-bedroom apartment. In response to an operator's questions, Chang is heard screaming in an anguished voice over and over again: "Help me."
Santoro could not be reached for comment following Friday's verdict.
Cho is scheduled to be sentenced Sept 7.