'I Want the White Girl'

15-year-old muder victim/ Courtesy Los Angeles Police Department

Tran's defense—lead by Wynn (a Vietnamese American with an Anglo spelling for his last name) and Mark Cantrell—has its strong points too. They called Montessori's death "heinous," but didn't argue that their client couldn't have committed the murder or the rapes because he'd never used prostitutes.

"This was a horrible set of crimes," said Cantrell. "But can the prosecutor prove that Mr. Tran is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Their evidence is deficient."

For example, the defense noted that one prostitute who was raped by a young Asian driving a silver Nissan pickup truck just four days before Montessori's death told police that her assailant's penis had been circumcised. Tran's is not, his lawyers say.

"Even the police will tell you it's common for prostitutes to make false allegations," said Cantrell, who also highlighted other discrepancies in the prostitute's descriptions of the pickup truck (Was it silver or blue? Did it have an extended cab or not?) and the assailant (Was he Asian or Mexican? Did he have a strong foreign accent or not?).

But perhaps the most compelling asset for the defense is Joanna, the prosecution's star witness. She couldn't positively identify Tran from a police photographic lineup. And though she talked about her close relationship to Montessori, she oddly waited three months to provide Santa Ana police detectives with her observations about the night of the killing and her assertion that she'd been raped by the same man.

Why remain silent when you claim Tran murdered your best friend and assaulted you at gunpoint?

"I was still with Pepper," said testified. "I couldn't, like, just go to the police station and say, 'Hey, my friend died.' She was a minor. I was a minor. And people on the street thought that Pepper had killed her."

You wouldn't lie in court to protect Pepper? asked Cantrell.

"No," said Joanna.

In a day that didn't always look promising for the defense, they might have scored on that point. A majority of jurors recorded the colloquy in their notebooks. When the jury left the courtroom, Tran shook hands with Wynn and smiled warmly at his mother who'd been watching the proceedings. A deputy placed him in handcuffs and escorted him back to jail where he lives thanks to a $1 million bail. If convicted, he faces a prison term of 55 years to life.


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