Jonathan Phong Khanh Tran--dubbed by a homicide detective as "the nicest killer" he'd ever met--has waited 17 months in a California prison in hopes that a state court of appeal would overturn his rape, oral copulation and murder convictions in the famed killing of Hanna Montessori, a 15-year-old prostitute related to the founder of Montessori schools.
But late yesterday a three-judge panel based in Santa Ana delivered two rounds of bad news to Tran. They ruled his cries of an unfair trial were not legitimate and then they did something that may have the former happy-faced Little Saigon car salesman wishing he'd never asked for a review of his case. The justice, opining that Judge William R. Froeberg was too lenient at the 2008 sentencing hearing, increased Tran's prison sentence by a whopping two decades.
Tran's punishment is now listed as 83 years to life, meaning he'll be 108 years old before he's eligible to seek parole.
The Montessori case attracted international media attention largely because Hanna Montessori ran away from her Georgia home and became a Southern California street prostitute working for "Pepper," a vicious pimp tied to the Los Angeles Crips. In January 2004, Hanna stood in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant on a seedy section of Harbor Boulevard in Santa Ana and sought customers. Tran drove up, told a black prostitute, "I want the white girl." Hanna got into Tran's truck. As they drove to a nearby cul-de-sac Hanna leaped from the moving vehicle, suffered a massive skull fracture and died on the street.
An investigation eventually lead to Tran, ironically the sweet, mild-mannered pride of his immigrant family. Detectives determined that a then-20-year-old Tran lived a double life. Though he had a longtime girlfriend and treated his mother like a queen, he habitually solicited teenage prostitutes at night.
But, according to police, the solicitations were not simple transactions. Tran raped, threatened and robbed a series of girls. In at least one case, he pretended to be an undercover cop to obtain a free blow job. In another case, he lured a teenage prostitute to his truck, drove away and said, "I don't want to fuck you. I just want to kill you." He then put a gun to her head and raped her, according to prosecutor Cameron Talley.
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Following his convictions, Tran claimed that his defense lawyers were incompetent because they didn't object to the admission of questionable evidence, failed to introduce exculpatory facts and produced an expert witness that boneheaded aided the prosecution's case by erroneously testifying that Tran had struck a fatal blow to Montessori. (There is no evidence that Tran even touched the girl.) With the assistance of attorney William J. Kopeny, he also claimed that Judge Froeberg, who is married to a top sex crimes prosecutor, thwarted justice by not allowing jurors the option of finding Tran guilty of involuntary manslaughter instead of murder.
"We find no merit in the defendant's arguments," the justices wrote.
Go HERE for a link to previous coverage of this case.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly