Nice Guys Do Hard Time
Convicted murderer Jonathan Tran's politeness and high-powered lawyers didn't help him at his sentencing
Arguably the most polite rapist/killer in Orange County history, a handcuffed 23-year-old Jonathan Tran entered a Santa Ana courtroom on April 25 and, as is his custom, made sure to acknowledge court officials—including his prosecutor—with a smile and a bow of his head. Tran arrived with hopes of further stalling what he must have prayed was not inevitable: his one-way trip to a California prison. He’d privately told authorities that he wished to put “it”—the rape of three prostitutes and the killing of a fourth in 2004—“behind me so I can move on with my life.” He was, he confided, anxious to marry his longtime girlfriend and start a family in Garden Grove.
The 5-foot-11, 130-pound Fletcher Jones Motorcars porter turned Buena Park Nissan salesman supplemented such naiveté with judicial brawn. Tran brought with him heavyweight defense attorneys Alan H. Stokke and Michael McClellan, who sported five binders filled with facts purporting to outline why Tran’s right to a fair trial in March 2007 had been trampled by a “clever” prosecutor and a lousy original defense team of Mark Cantrell and Richard Wynn.
“A great number of times, the defense failed to object when they should have,” Stokke told Superior Court Judge William Froeberg.
Stokke, hired by Tran’s 45-year-old mother after the convictions, argued that Cantrell and Wynn (both of Riverside) wrongly sat mum each time prosecutor Cameron Talley used a .22-caliber shell casing found in Tran’s truck as evidence that Tran had used a handgun during the rapes and on the night of 15-year-old Hanna Montessori’s death.
Montessori, a Georgia runaway turned Southern California prostitute, met Tran in the parking lot of a Santa Ana Jack in the Box on Jan. 19, 2004. She was working with an African-American teenage hooker. When Tran drove up in his Nissan pickup truck, he said, “I want the white girl.” She got in. They drove off. At a nearby residential cul-de-sac, Montessori—related to the Italian founder of the internationally famed Montessori schools—jumped from the moving truck. Her head struck the pavement, fracturing her skull. Tran, who police say had a history of raping and robbing teenage prostitutes, sped off. Months later, prostitutes helped police identify Tran.
According to Stokke, law enforcement’s claim that Tran had wielded a gun during the Montessori encounter was “a central factor in the prosecution’s case.” But because Cantrell and Wynn didn’t bother to have the shell tested, the jury never learned that it didn’t belong to a handgun. Analysis done at the request of Stokke after the trial proved the shell had been fired from a rifle. Besides, Stokke noted, police never found a handgun to tie to Tran.
“The shell shouldn’t have even been admitted in the case,” he said.
Froeberg wasn’t impressed. “This is all water under the bridge,” he said. “I’m not going to re-litigate.”
Stokke changed topics. He pointed out that Cantrell and Wynn hadn’t tested Montessori’s cell phone for Tran’s DNA, even though Talley told jurors that Tran and the girl had struggled over the phone seconds before she died. Post-trial testing by Stokke showed no DNA link to Tran.
“This jury was left with very misleading impressions about the evidence,” said Stokke, who called the ineptitude of Tran’s defense team “absolutely amazing.”
Froeberg, whose wife is a supervisor in the district attorney’s sexual-assault unit, rocked back in his seat on the bench, yawned and stared at the ceiling.
Stokke then outlined all the ways the defense failed to challenge the veracity of testimony by four teen prostitutes. “There were promises made by police for their cooperation,” said Stokke. “And I can’t imagine why any competent [defense] attorney didn’t conduct a decent cross-examination of them. These girls were saying whatever was necessary in order not to be arrested. This jury was simply not aware of this.”
After addressing the court for more than an hour, a cotton-mouthed Stokke requested a short break. Froeberg was quick with an answer. “No,” he said. Stokke asked if it was okay to take a sip of water. The judge glared at him as he gulped three quick drinks.
Stokke then called McClellan, his lone witness in the hearing, to testify. Froeberg acknowledged him as an expert in criminal-defense tactics. McClellan opined that Cantrell and Wynn’s efforts had been “incompetent.”
During cross-examination by Talley, McClellan conceded that defense attorneys often elect not to object in front of juries for sound tactical reasons. But in this case, there wasn’t a good reason, according to McClellan.
“I think the credibility of the witnesses was everything,” he testified. “That should have been gone after aggressively. It wasn’t . . . It didn’t look like they [Cantrell and Wynn] knew what they were doing.”
McClellan also noted that the defense had recklessly called a rebuttal witness who had strengthened the prosecution’s case by erroneously declaring that Tran may have knocked Montessori out before she fell from the truck.
But Talley argued that even if the defense hadn’t been stellar, it still hadn’t fallen below minimum competency standards.
“The bottom line is that facts drive cases,” said the veteran prosecutor. “What convicted Mr. Tran wasn’t the lawyers. The defendant got convicted because he did these things. The evidence in the case was overwhelming. There wasn’t anything for Mr. Cantrell and Mr. Wynn to do.”
Stokke fired back. “This isn’t such a lopsided case at all,” he said. “It was a close call. The jury had things they shouldn’t have had.”
Two hours into the hearing, Froeberg declared Stokke’s arguments addressed “harmless errors” or were “marginally relevant” and “hardly pervasive.”
The judge declared that Montessori had died while trying to flee Tran’s attempt to rape and rob her. “There is no other reasonable conclusion,” he said. “The prosecution’s case was proven. . . . The motion for a new trial is denied.”
At punishment time, Stokke asked for leniency, suggesting a 25-years-to-life term. Froeberg sentenced Tran to the maximum term available: 63 years to life in prison. Sitting one seat away from me, his mother looked visibly pained. She gripped a moist tissue. Her chin hit her chest.
Froeberg asked Tran if he understood his fate. “Yes, sir,” he said softly. Though he can still appeal his convictions to a higher court, Tran—who arrived in the U.S. as an infant in 1985—may never see freedom again. His first chance to ask a prison parole board for release will be in 2071.
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• 'Nicest Killer I've Ever Met,' March 22, 2007
• 'I Want the White Girl,' March 8, 2007