Both Sides of the Kim Pham Murder Trial Rely Heavily on Technology—And That's Messing Up the Case

Not always worth 1,000 words
Mark Rightmire/OC Register

Ever since word emerged in the early morning of Jan. 18 that a brutal fight occurred outside the Crosby in downtown Santa Ana and left a Vietnamese-American woman brain dead, the saga of Kim Pham has been inextricably rooted in technology. Eyewitnesses spread the initial reports of the beating on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat—status updates, photos, videos and more. When the first video snippet of the altercation surfaced, Pham's friends took to Facebook to find the people who might have killed her. The story went viral a full two days before the mainstream media caught up, and the thousands of tips and leads that Santa Ana Police Department detectives pursued afterward were fueled mostly by that initial social-media push. Much of the evidence and testimony in the case has been digital, with the arguments of both sides predicated on nearly half a dozen videos of various graininess.

But while the deluge of digital evidence seems as though it would help the Orange County district attorney's office, which charged Candace Brito and Vanesa Zavala with Pham's murder, it's actually doing the opposite. The inability of the prosecution and defense to adequately use the technology in Judge Thomas Goethals' courtroom has led to jarring stoppages in questioning, confusing situations for jurors and witnesses, and momentary disappearances of clear lines of questioning on both sides.

These pauses and glitches are embarrassing defense attorney Kenneth Reed—but it's downright harming the DA's case. The People's technology issues surfaced during opening statements. Senior Deputy District Attorney Troy Pino began strong, pinpointing each argument he was going to make, as well as the evidence and witnesses he was going to use to support it.

"We have seven witnesses who see kicks to [the] head," Pino said, making sure to gesture with his hands at the jury on each point. "Three are friends of Kim Pham, four are independent. Two witnesses have partial video."

But when it came time to show the jurors a video of the altercation, his punctuated delivery disappeared. He had to close his PowerPoint presentation, a garish mishmash of bad fonts and colors, to play a video. The DVD drive of his computer lagged, leading to disconcerted looks among jurors and the audience. And when he was able to make the video work, the audio wouldn't play. Pino eventually waited until later that day to try again. By the time he got the sound working with the video so the jury could hear the cacophony of dozens of people yelling, screaming and crying, the damage to Pino's presentation skills were singed. Later, as Pino loaded a video of Pham's friends pushing away Brito and Zavala, he attempted to fill the empty time with idle, desperate talk. "I hope we'll have audio," he said, openly pining for someone to appear and connect the correct wires.

Then came Pino's problem of too much audio. During day two of the trial, Pino successfully showed a video as he questioned his witness. Suddenly, white noise from the sound system's live wires buzzed in the background, making it difficult to hear anything the witness was saying. Pino gallantly attempted to continue with his questioning, as members of the public and several jurors looked around in confusion. A bailiff soon unplugged an audio cable so the buzzing would stop.

The defense has also weathered tech hiccups. On day three, as Reed (who's representing Zavala) cross-examined another of Pham's friends, he plugged his laptop into the court's AV system. After a few seconds, his screen appeared on both TVs and the projection screen. "I have no clue how I made that happen," he said. He has yet to successfully play audio over the courtroom's sound system, instead relying on tinny Macbook Pro speakers that he decidedly points away from the jury. And then there's his questioning. When video evidence is played on two LCD televisions and one large projector screen, Reed has most of his cross-examined witnesses leave the stand so they could position themselves 2 feet from where the videos are shown. Reed's quick-talking, witness-confusing style of cross-examination isn't as effective when he has to wait for a person to get up, walk to a screen, watch a 4-second video clip, return to the witness box, and then speak into a microphone.

Worse still are Reed's efforts to have witnesses identify individuals in stills pulled from videos in evidence. None of the photos his office printed displayed clearly on the courtroom's overhead projector, thanks to the glare produced by the semi-glossy paper Reed's office chose. Instead of filling in names for the jury to see, Reed has needed to approach witnesses multiple times so they can fill in the identification themselves.

Reed's slip-ups would kill his case if he were alone, but it has allowed Michael Molfetta, Brito's defense attorney, to look competent by comparison. The high-priced defense lawyer is known for his charisma and possesses a courtroom style akin to Sam Waterson's character in Law and Order. While much of Pino's and Reed's questioning is awkwardly timed around video clips, Molfetta is breezier. In nearly 20 hours, Molfetta has used a video clip during his cross-examination just once: during the afternoon of the third day. While addressing Jacqueline Dinh, a young Vietnamese woman who can be seen in videos trying to push attackers away from Pham, Molfetta played a video thanks to—Molfetta's words—Reed, "my IT department."

Not once has Molfetta paused awkwardly to wait for a video to load or to adjust an audio cable. Meanwhile, as Pino questioned one of his key witnesses, Reed accidentally played a video out loud.

Goethals was amused, calling Reed a "technological wizard."

"I don't know about that," Molfetta replied, as the courtroom laughed.

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