As a soldier, Peter Nong Le defended South Vietnam in battles with the communists from 1960 to 1975. In 1971, Le became a brutalized prisoner of war (POW) forced to march the Ho Chi Minh trail. Victorious North Vietnamese forces sent him to a post-war concentration camp in 1975.
Those horrific experiences left Le suffering from "chronic and severe" Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that often causes him to hallucinate and form delusions, according to numerous doctors who've examined him after he immigrated to the United States.
But when it came time for Le to explain why in December 2004 he shot and killed two of his Santa Ana housemates--his brother's girlfriend and their teenage daughter--Judge William R. Froeberg refused to allow jurors to hear evidence of the war experiences that caused the PTSD.
That ruling lead to a jury finding that Le had been sane at the time of the killing.
Here's what happened: Using a silver revolver and a pillow as a silencer, Le mistakenly shot the teenager in the kitchen thinking she was the older woman whom he accused of calling him bad names and nagging him because he hadn't cleaned the bathroom after using it. He eventually found his brother's girlfriend in the backyard and shot her repeatedly at a close distance. Afterward, he called 9-1-1 to turn himself in.
"I did do something very terrible," Le told the 9-1-1 operator. "I want to surrender to the police officer, okay?"
Inside Froeberg's courtroom in February 2009, a jury convicted Le of the double murders and the judge wasn't tepid about doling out stiff punishment: life in prison without the possibility for parole plus and extra 25 years to life sentence.
Le--the oldest of 11 children in his South Vietnamese family--appealed from prison, arguing that Froeberg had improperly thwarted his defense by excluding key PTSD evidence.
(Froeberg did, however, let jurors hear from retired U.S. Army Col. William Reeder Jr., who testified that he and Le were POWs together.)
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This week, a California Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana dismissed Le's complaint, saying that while Froeberg could have allowed jurors to hear evidence of Le's war trauma, the judge hadn't acted "absurdly."
"The evidence did not substantially advance [Le's] claim he did not know the killings were wrong," the justices concluded.
Le's conviction and punishment will stand.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly