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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62 comments
agertejj
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chulavistafoto
chulavistafoto

I am tired of the media portraying this drunken, fight starting, fight losing woman as a saint.  If she was a saint, she would not have been fighting in a bar, unprotected by her posse.  No one deserves to die as she did, but the media needs to be better about portraying the players in this very unfortunate incident.  Hey, Demo Lition, get a life and get ready for the Reconquista.  Better start taking Spanish lessons.

Demo Lition
Demo Lition

Murky at best, racists column at worst. Why doesn't the whole city of S A hold hands and sing kumbyay after the verdict? Dos this magazine ever have anything positive to say about white people? Or, anything negative about Hispanics? Not counting the stupid ask a cholo column

Julisa Orozco
Julisa Orozco

Sat down and read the whole article, glad to see the change about not making it a "racial" attack...

carierael
carierael

Where's the cover story on the death of Zoraida Reyes?!

taidodinh
taidodinh

bad system clearly they kick to kill her wat happen to court system super stupid

dubyadawg
dubyadawg topcommenter

Downtown Santa Ana is doing just fine. Artwalk draws an even larger crowd-from the East End all the way to Broadway and new galleries in between. All the new wine bars are receiving great reviews and there are more places opening soon. Native Son Alehouse just opened and is already popular as hell! Did you forget about the East End Block Party that just happened last weekend??? Epic attendance! The Downtown Santa Ana Farmers' Market is going strong and Thursday nights in the Downtown are busy with people walking around. Several new restaurants will be opening on 4th street west of Broadway including a microbrewery. I'm very disappointed in the article as far as the once again, dig at the downtown. You guys just cannot help yourselves, can you? Downtown Santa Ana was voted Best Downtown in 2012 by the OC Weekly and even in that write up the author had to give a back-handed com

rustcohle
rustcohle

People are trying so hard to make this a race issue and its not. Not everything has to be about race. There are no winners here. Why the hell would you take one side over the other just because you are the same color/ethnicity as them? That is as stupid as beating up someone over cheering for the team you hate.


And please ignore the ignorant ass race baiters of every color in here. Orange County is going to continue to be more diverse. Like it or leave it. The only thing we can do is learn to live together. There are less immigrants now than there was before.  The children of the immigrants will become Americanized. By the third generation they will scarcely know Spanish. It always happens. I've seen it.  Mellow out, smoke em if you got them and help each other out.  Race hatred gets you know where. 

Toejam
Toejam

We have become a society of entitled, narcissistic spoiled rotten brats. A generation ago, people who were 26-27 years old were married, were responsible,  had kids, had grown up jobs, owned homes and didn't go out clubbing and acting like asshole teenagers. What you had outside the Crosby that night were a drunk group of over grown snot faced  teenagers who were acting like spoiled toddlers. "Somebody stepped into my photo"...kick their ass! "Sombody bumped into me and didn't say "excuse me"...kick their ass! "Look...girl fight"!...whip out your cell phone camera and don't lift a finger to stop the violence.

Three lives were ruined that night. Two women will to to jail for years and will forever be labeled as "convicted felons". Another young woman lost her life. All three were just starting out in this thing we call life and in a three minute "perfect storm", it all blew up in their faces.

Hopefully people will look at these three people and will learn a lesson. Turn the other cheek. Be nice. Be polite. Give somebody the right-of-way. Don't be so immature and childish that you take offense at the slighest threat to your selfhood. Just because somebody calls you a "bitch" or a "motherfocker" does not make it true. It all starts at home and people are not raising their children properly.

rb2767
rb2767

my daughters grew up being proud of their mexican-vietnamese heritage ( mexicanese) maybe with the blending of our cultures as time moves on acts like this will be a thing of the pass.

sea_sea
sea_sea

So what ever happened to the 3rd women, Amelia, the "friend" who seems to be the one everyone was defending. 

brianguy
brianguy

the article self-righteously claims none of it was racially motivated, then never even goes on to attempt to prove such a statement.  OK well if you say so.  guess you're right. 

taidodinh
taidodinh

lucky fat bicthes i wish they die in jail for wat they done they dont look too happy now

weirdough
weirdough

How sad on both sides yet it truly shows how clubs or bars will hire private security & these so called guards "didn't know what to do or feel." If these businesses really cared about their customers, they should've consider safety above everything else, but its OBVIOUS that $$$ speaks for them. I'm really disappointed that the owners of Crosby just decided to open a different type of business to make profit when the situation happen because all 3 women try to get into their business! Shame but its greed like that which can be visible to our naked eyes that any business in the club/bar industry could care less about what's going on outside their doors. I feel like Pham should've been the bigger person here since she was a student at a UC; to walk away from 2 ignorant ones since education is combine with common sense & truly help in life, but who knows if it WAS smart of her to stand for herself EVEN IF they bashed her head to death & possibly felt good for proving what they can be about if you cross their way. Either way, it's just sad but it's not like these kinds of incidents are uncommon, they happen everywhere at any stage and any age, until everybody in this country steps their foot down, maybe change will come, but IMO, it seems unlikely.... another one bites the dust.


RIP KIM PHAM

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

Ironic, ( jealousy????)


why /how would someone in the media OBJECT to someone(s) getting an incident on video!!?



there is no time for a conference in these situations 


"ok I will video you break up the fight, you vid"


without the video be it incidents like this or police brutality etc etc


we'd be back to he said she said


sure, in rearview mirror fashion,, if it could have been broken up puenta! then no vids even need exist


but is that the next 


BULLY??


THE VIDEOTOG



sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

"and the old guard didn't know what to do or feel. "


the "old guard" only worries when the "new guard" has little to no parental control and/or refuses to take responsibility for their "yungins"



the FACT that it was 'tragic" ( you add "just" to show a comparative to "racially motivated/charged) 


doesnt change the facts



had this been white attackers on a black person


the same circus from "20 years ago" would have ensued


the DA and crew 


came out immediately after the crime and 


proclaimed


its not racist




which is easier to do when the victims have a HISTORY OF NOT SHOWING THAT AT A DROP OF THE HAT(E) THEY WILL CRY RACISM



Whophantom
Whophantom

This is a reason why dance clubs cannot operate in OC. Insurance & Security costs prevent making a profit. A few people who can't act maturely ruin it for those who can.

Ro Ar
Ro Ar

And they sullied the calm of the Artist's District, the most peaceful place in Santa Ana.

Ro Ar
Ro Ar

Those cholas got way too lenient a sentence.

cynthia.curran8
cynthia.curran8

@dubyadawg , that sounds good,that Santa Ana has more of a diversity of business. I think the same is happening in the once depressed parts of Anaheim as well with the packaging house. Anaheim I think well redeveloped even more with the new train station.

GustavoArellano
GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

@dubyadawg Drove by there Tuesday night around 9; three squad cars parked next to Gypsy Den, no one on the streets. Come again?

cynthia.curran8
cynthia.curran8

@rustcohle True, immigration to Santa Ana and Anaheim have slowed down and OC in general. There are cheaper places to live where you have just as much opportunity to get a construction job or service job like Houston Texas and so forth. Mexican birth rate has dropped and it seems that immigration is lower than 10 years ago which means by 2030 both Santa Ana and Anaheim will be less Spanish speaking or more people that know both English and Spanish instead of just Spanish.

mehiconoesbueno
mehiconoesbueno

@rustcohle 


why dont you ask the parents of the chinese student who was beaten to death by mexicans what they think of being "more diverse"?

Sevenhorsemen
Sevenhorsemen

@Toejam,

Well said! The 20 to 30 something generation raised in the US are entitled brats who deserve to reap what they sow. When a generation forgets or purposely shuns the positive teachings of their culture or religion to be more Americanized (hahaha), they end up becoming the negative stereotypes they try to avoid. Throw a little alcohol, drugs and Ego into the mix and voila! Pham becomes the drunken tough, love you long time bar girl while Brito and Zavalo turn into baby mama drama choulas instead of the Instagram/Facebook Kardashian clones they

Everyone is trying so hard to keep this white washed bougie appearance, pretending to be something they're not (Kardashian like) that they flip on the first person who call them out. So what if someone stepped into your "selfie". Too damned self absorbed and entitled. God help those who created this monster generation.

processlife
processlife

@rb2767 your daughters are idiots!!!   teach them that their Americans dumbass!

Toejam
Toejam

She ran back to Mexico.

silly_rabbit_22
silly_rabbit_22

@brianguy positive it wasn't racially motivated. mexicans dont usually funk with vietnamese and vietnamese dont usually funk wit mexicans. we don't go out and target other races. theres normally mutual respect from both sides. if anything both groups funk with their own ppl over 95% of the time. it really couldve been any race against another that night

rustcohle
rustcohle

@taidodinh  so much hatred. What does them being fat have to do with anything? Mellow out.

dubyadawg
dubyadawg topcommenter

Hey, friend of your fellow man, what's going on outside your front door right now? How about 100 feet away from your front door? Did you see that kid trip on the sidewalk? Did you stop it? How about the food truck parked out on your street a few doors down that's also selling drugs? Are you running outside and stopping that from happening? Why not? Oh, because you are busy in your rental getting your kids ready for bed? Getting ready for work? Your busy running a household and cannot monitor what is going on right outside your own place? Quick blaming a restaurant/bar for the idiots that were fighting outside on the sidewalk. Greed? Get a clue.

rbam821
rbam821

@Whophantom Clubs anywhere and everywhere have the same issues you just don't hear about them on the news. Stupid people who can't handle their liquor. They have a few drinks and think they are invincible. Fights at a night club happen in OC, LA, New York...anywhere there is alcohol and stupid people... and there is no shortage and alcohol at a night club...as for the stupid people there will never be a shortage of them anywhere in the world.

RocketJ
RocketJ

Welcome back from there future Marty, what will they be sentenced on September 12 2014?

dubyadawg
dubyadawg topcommenter

@cynthia.curran8 @dubyadawg The Packing House is pretty cool.  We have been there a few times.  The 4th Street Market currently under construction in Downtown SA is going to be very cool.  In fact, the 4th Street Market was in the OC Register today along with the Anaheim Packing House.  Train station for Anaheim and the street car for Santa Ana. Loving the forward momentum.  Huge improvements everywhere.


dubyadawg
dubyadawg topcommenter

Damn cops eating again!

Eman64
Eman64

@mehiconoesbueno Kim Pham wasn't Chinese, she was Vietnamese.  Also, she was no longer a student - she graduated college in 2013.  Get your facts right. 

rustcohle
rustcohle

@mehiconoesbueno @rustcohle


and? what will that prove? there are bad people in every race. Lets look at all the white criminals......should we assume white men are serial killers? Are whackos about to go on a shooting rampage at a mall? What is the ehtinicty of the people who commit most of the white collar crime?  Should we discriminate against all white people in finance? Who work at banks? Moron.



Looks past race dude. Youre a sad little man.

weirdough
weirdough

@dubyadawg - if you actually READ the report & then READ my comment, you would've understood my perspective, however, all you did was rant with rhetorical questions, with no valid points or good reasons as to why YOU disagree with MY comment. Thanks for your 2 cents, but you won't be getting a dollar back

GustavoArellano
GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

@dubyadawg Oh, that's not true, and you know it. But keep those Pollyana goggles on!

dubyadawg
dubyadawg topcommenter

Go back to school and learn how to spell.

dubyadawg
dubyadawg topcommenter

Yeah, ok. Where did you get your pair?

Eman64
Eman64

@anonymous @Eman64 @mehiconoesbueno  I read about that story now - I wasn't aware of it prior to my comment.  Regardless, his comment is confusing considering it doesn't identify exactly which story he's referring to. 

 
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