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The Passion of Kim Pham

How Orange County's highest-profile murder trial became just another case—and that's a good thing

The Passion of Kim Pham
Photo: Ed Carrasco | Design: Dustin Ames

At 2:42 p.m. on July 24, the call came in: The jury in the Kim Pham case had reached a verdict.

Over the next hour, people trickled into the Orange County Central Justice Center's Courtroom 45, where most long-term trials take place. The small press corps that had followed the proceedings were the first on the scene, followed by Pham's Vietnamese friends and family. The Latino supporters of Candace Brito and Vanesa Zavala, the women charged with Pham's death, arrived last, resigned to what was about to happen. The room eventually overflowed, mostly with the Pham family's supporters spilling out into the hallway, tears already in their eyes.

It was the ending to one of Orange County's highest-profile murder cases in recent years: a beautiful, young Vietnamese-American newlywed and recent college graduate killed in a fight outside a restaurant in Santa Ana. The story made international headlines and immediately became a referendum on the New OC, a place where minorities were now the majority and the old guard didn't know what to do or feel. Multiple narratives popped up: the apathy of youth culture (Why didn't anyone stop the fight?), a glimpse of the future of OC race relations (Did the Mexican defendants attack Pham because she was Asian? Were Vietnamese refusing to cooperate with authorities because of their culture?), the discontents of gentrification (this is what happens when a city tries to attract out-of-towners). When the trial started after months of delays, the possibility of a legal circus in which race-baiting, victim-shaming and other indignities seemed imminent.

Ed Carrasco
Brito (left) and Zavala: Not guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter
Mark Rightmire/Orange County Register pool photo
Brito (left) and Zavala: Not guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter

But a funny thing happened on the way to the verdict: nothing. The fight involving Pham, Brito and Zavala was not racially motivated, and people did try to step in and stop it. The district attorney's office, who had staged a travesty of justice 20 years earlier with a similar case, didn't demonize; the defense team didn't slur anyone during the two-week trial. The fight on Jan. 18 was not the clash of civilizations; it was just tragic.

The jury re-entered the courtroom at 3:22 p.m. After the verdicts were read—Brito and Zavala were found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury—the clerk punctuated the moment by polling the jury.

"Juror No. 1, are these your verdicts and findings as read?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Juror No. 2, are these your verdicts and findings as read?"

Et cetera.

After the verdicts were confirmed and Judge Thomas Goethals scheduled the sentencing date, there was no celebration, no outbursts of emotion other than the quiet weeping of Pham's, Brito's and Zavala's families and some jurors. Santa Ana police staffers privately congratulated detectives Leo Rodriguez and Patricia Navarro for cracking the case, as observers waited for elevators. The courtroom was cleared so jurors could exit through a rear door.

Kim Pham's father, Dung Pham, headed to the second floor to hold a small press conference. There, he said what everyone was feeling—not just about his daughter, but also about the entire situation.

"I stand here today, but my spirit died when my daughter did," he said. "When I see Miss Brito and Miss Zavala cry, I am sad for them, too. Nobody win; nobody lost. I don't feel sad; I don't feel happy."

Even the broad-shouldered prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Troy Pino, was shaken. During the trial, he had said that what happened that night wasn't a tragedy. "Natural disasters, cancer, people dying on the freeway—those are tragedies," he said during his closing statements. "This was criminal."

But during a short press conference after the verdicts were read, Pino didn't bask in his victory. "You have one young woman who is dead," he said, pausing momentarily to collect himself. "And you have two young women who have been convicted of a homicide. Nobody wins."

*     *     *

"I'll never understand why it was so hard to break up those two girls," Michael Molfetta, Brito's defense lawyer and a former bouncer, told the Weekly hours after the verdicts were read. "I believe that the people that stood in line, that videotaped it are abject jackasses. . . . I guarantee you this: If I were there, I could've broken up that quarrel in four seconds."

Molfetta's opinion was shared by the world. In the days following the fight, as Pham lay brain dead in St. Joseph's Hospital in Orange, waiting to have her organs harvested, she was quickly becoming a modern-age Kitty Genovese. When the first videos of the fight went viral, showing what looked like a crowd of people attacking Pham as others recorded or openly joked, the brawl became an indictment of the millennial society, which found indifferent young people lacking the empathy to care beyond the spectacle of it all.

"The bottom line is that, apparently, we live in a world right now where the twentysomething set are faster to pull out a cell phone and record than call the police or pull apart the 5-foot-1, 100-something-pound girl and the 5-foot-3, 120-something-pound girl and tell them to shut up," Molfetta said.

Later videos and testimony, however, disproved the idea that Pham found herself alone, surrounded by people beating her (no less than 15 individuals could be seen in videos attempting to break up the fight). And the uncaring-millennials narrative simply didn't hold up. Two of the prosecution's star witnesses did record or tried to record the fight so they could later upload the videos to the Internet. But while they were caught up in the moment, they eventually had epiphanies: They regretted what they did, and it was obvious during the trial their actions still haunted them.

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