The Passion of Kim Pham
Photo: Ed Carrasco | Design: Dustin Ames
At 2:42 p.m. on July 24, the call came in: The jury in the Kim Pham case had reached a verdict.
Over the next hour, people trickled into the Orange County Central Justice Center's Courtroom 45, where most long-term trials take place. The small press corps that had followed the proceedings were the first on the scene, followed by Pham's Vietnamese friends and family. The Latino supporters of Candace Brito and Vanesa Zavala, the women charged with Pham's death, arrived last, resigned to what was about to happen. The room eventually overflowed, mostly with the Pham family's supporters spilling out into the hallway, tears already in their eyes.
It was the ending to one of Orange County's highest-profile murder cases in recent years: a beautiful, young Vietnamese-American newlywed and recent college graduate killed in a fight outside a restaurant in Santa Ana. The story made international headlines and immediately became a referendum on the New OC, a place where minorities were now the majority and the old guard didn't know what to do or feel. Multiple narratives popped up: the apathy of youth culture (Why didn't anyone stop the fight?), a glimpse of the future of OC race relations (Did the Mexican defendants attack Pham because she was Asian? Were Vietnamese refusing to cooperate with authorities because of their culture?), the discontents of gentrification (this is what happens when a city tries to attract out-of-towners). When the trial started after months of delays, the possibility of a legal circus in which race-baiting, victim-shaming and other indignities seemed imminent.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the verdict: nothing. The fight involving Pham, Brito and Zavala was not racially motivated, and people did try to step in and stop it. The district attorney's office, who had staged a travesty of justice 20 years earlier with a similar case, didn't demonize; the defense team didn't slur anyone during the two-week trial. The fight on Jan. 18 was not the clash of civilizations; it was just tragic.
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The jury re-entered the courtroom at 3:22 p.m. After the verdicts were read—Brito and Zavala were found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury—the clerk punctuated the moment by polling the jury.
"Juror No. 1, are these your verdicts and findings as read?" she asked.
"Juror No. 2, are these your verdicts and findings as read?"
After the verdicts were confirmed and Judge Thomas Goethals scheduled the sentencing date, there was no celebration, no outbursts of emotion other than the quiet weeping of Pham's, Brito's and Zavala's families and some jurors. Santa Ana police staffers privately congratulated detectives Leo Rodriguez and Patricia Navarro for cracking the case, as observers waited for elevators. The courtroom was cleared so jurors could exit through a rear door.
Kim Pham's father, Dung Pham, headed to the second floor to hold a small press conference. There, he said what everyone was feeling—not just about his daughter, but also about the entire situation.
"I stand here today, but my spirit died when my daughter did," he said. "When I see Miss Brito and Miss Zavala cry, I am sad for them, too. Nobody win; nobody lost. I don't feel sad; I don't feel happy."
Even the broad-shouldered prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Troy Pino, was shaken. During the trial, he had said that what happened that night wasn't a tragedy. "Natural disasters, cancer, people dying on the freeway—those are tragedies," he said during his closing statements. "This was criminal."
But during a short press conference after the verdicts were read, Pino didn't bask in his victory. "You have one young woman who is dead," he said, pausing momentarily to collect himself. "And you have two young women who have been convicted of a homicide. Nobody wins."
* * *
"I'll never understand why it was so hard to break up those two girls," Michael Molfetta, Brito's defense lawyer and a former bouncer, told the Weekly hours after the verdicts were read. "I believe that the people that stood in line, that videotaped it are abject jackasses. . . . I guarantee you this: If I were there, I could've broken up that quarrel in four seconds."
Molfetta's opinion was shared by the world. In the days following the fight, as Pham lay brain dead in St. Joseph's Hospital in Orange, waiting to have her organs harvested, she was quickly becoming a modern-age Kitty Genovese. When the first videos of the fight went viral, showing what looked like a crowd of people attacking Pham as others recorded or openly joked, the brawl became an indictment of the millennial society, which found indifferent young people lacking the empathy to care beyond the spectacle of it all.
"The bottom line is that, apparently, we live in a world right now where the twentysomething set are faster to pull out a cell phone and record than call the police or pull apart the 5-foot-1, 100-something-pound girl and the 5-foot-3, 120-something-pound girl and tell them to shut up," Molfetta said.
Later videos and testimony, however, disproved the idea that Pham found herself alone, surrounded by people beating her (no less than 15 individuals could be seen in videos attempting to break up the fight). And the uncaring-millennials narrative simply didn't hold up. Two of the prosecution's star witnesses did record or tried to record the fight so they could later upload the videos to the Internet. But while they were caught up in the moment, they eventually had epiphanies: They regretted what they did, and it was obvious during the trial their actions still haunted them.
Jason Loyola, the prosecution's star witness, was angry with the situation almost immediately. He had been standing down the line from Pham and her friends when the incident happened. The 24-year-old saw almost everything, from the verbal argument to the start of the fight to Pham's friends apparently lying to the police as they were interviewed afterward. He had also tried to pull out his cell phone to record the event, but he wasn't able to before other people around him started fighting and everything became chaotic.
Loyola immediately went to Facebook to vent his frustration, writing that night that he had "watched someone die." When interviewed by the police, Loyola said that Pham had been "sucker kicked" and that it was "undeserved."
But Loyola didn't wholeheartedly absolve Pham, either. On the stand, he was quiet but steadfast with both lawyers during questioning.
"[Pham's] friends were holding her back and telling her to calm down, but she swung anyway," Loyola said, shaking his head. "That's when the brawl started."
Aaron Remulla, a twentysomething Filipino-American man, sat uncomfortably on the witness stand on the second day of the trial. On the night of the fight, he had been standing in line slightly in front of Pham and her friends, wearing a black T-shirt and a hat that made him easily identifiable to other witnesses. When the brawl started, he was one of the first to pull out his phone and start recording, and his video would become a key piece of evidence for the prosecution. In other videos, he can be seen approaching the scrum, venturing closer than any of the other voyeurs, crouching to get a better angle of the fight—a millennial at his worst.
On the screens in the courtroom, Remulla seemed excited; on the stand, he was introspective, almost uncooperative. He had originally attempted to hand over his video anonymously, but Pino had called him as a witness for the prosecution. After some prodding, Remulla finally went into detail about what he saw that night, how he saw Brito and Zavala kick Pham. How when he realized Pham might have died, everything changed.
"The incident greatly affected you, didn't it?" Pino asked him.
"Yes," he replied quietly. "I've been having trouble sleeping."
"Why?" Pino continued.
"I didn't realize I was watching someone die."
* * *
OC's Vietnamese population has long been thought of as refugees and little else, but it has undergone a substantial transformation in the past decade as second-generation Vietnamese-Americans grew up and became young adults. As one of them, Pham exposed the generation gap that grows with each year between the refugee community and their assimilated children. The Vietnamese-language press keenly followed the case, its readers slamming the second generation as out-of-control youth who had it coming, who had lost the ways of their elders and brought dishonor to the diaspora.
In the days after the incident, there were rumors that Pham's friends weren't cooperating with the investigation, in part because of the belief that Vietnamese mistrust the police. (That's not completely true: Many of her friends did help with the investigation.) There was also the allegation that Pham or Pham's friends were members of a street gang; this was never proved and never made it into court. But the gossip spread through the Little Saigon airwaves, as well as via social media.
Soon, the criticisms became the story.
"When something happens to a Mexican or a Black person, people are up in arms to defend them," a Nguoi Viet Daily News reader wrote in early July. "How can Vietnamese ever expect to win if we have no advocates of our own?"
The barbs continued as readers followed the day-to-day developments of the case. They criticized individual witnesses, asked what else could have been done and were mindful of the community's future.
"We Vietnamese came to this country after a disaster," wrote another reader. "Our children grew up in this country. But how many of them are interested in our country, our history? How many of them are maintaining their moral character? Should we even call them Vietnamese? Everything you read about Vietnamese today is about breaking the law. When they go out, they're scantily clad and are rude and cause trouble. What will their future look like?"
"At first, everyone was outraged," says Ha Giang, Nguoi Viet's assistant editor in chief. "The first day or two, they thought it was discrimination or racial hatred, but then the emotions changed to disappointment. . . . Some readers even said, 'Shame on you, shame on you, why don't you speak up?'"
The relationship between Vietnamese and Mexicans quickly became a focus of the media covering the incident, especially as it had played out in downtown Santa Ana. Over the past decade, the area had welcomed new restaurants, bars and clubs that pushed out Latino clientele and businesses via gentrification. A significant number of the new customers were young Asians, most of whom had never stepped foot in the city before. An uneasy, unspoken tension played out nightly, as lifelong residents of Santa Ana quietly fretted about the young Asians who were coming into their city. And Latino advocacy groups openly complained the newcomers were attracting too many bars and too much chaos.
Tensions came to a head in 2010, when a 23-year-old Asian man from Irvine was murdered during a mugging in a Santa Ana parking structure after a night out. The downtown scene notably chilled for several months, but that chill dissipated as more businesses came and boosters doubled down.
At the beginning of 2014, those years of push and hype were paying off with long lines, social-media buzz, and the planned opening of more than a dozen restaurants and bars, with more to come. On weekends, most of the restaurants had hours-long waits. During art walks, it would take half an hour to get into a parking structure. Lines of young twentysomethings would twist around the Yost Theater.
After Pham's death, businesses and political leaders quickly tried to save what they had built. "We see this assault as an assault on one of our own," Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido said during a press conference five days after Pham's death. "We don't see it as a hate crime."
As he spoke, the city's Vietnamese-community liaison, Ken Nguyen, worked the crowd, talking directly to members of the Vietnamese press about the efforts the city had made with community organizations during the investigation. He mentioned how, if they wanted, Vietnamese witnesses could speak anonymously and privately to the mayor and the police chief.
Downtown Inc., a coalition of most of the new downtown's businesses, offered a $5,000 reward for information two days after the beating happened. That amount would be matched by the city, doubling it to $10,000. Police immediately started patrolling the area, often by planting squad cars in conspicuous spots in hopes of making visitors feel more comfortable.
But it was too late.
Now, visit downtown Santa Ana on an off-peak weeknight, and it's eerie. The sidewalks are clear, and the people who are out are more low-key—couples looking for a quick dinner, artists looking for a patron instead of a party. Stroll along the area's wide sidewalks, and you'll rarely be accosted or even share space with another pedestrian. Go close enough to closing time, and it's a ghost town—you wouldn't even be able to tell that it was one of the county's most popular nightlife neighborhoods.
The Crosby, the restaurant/lounge/club that launched the rest of downtown Santa Ana into regional prominence and stood beside the infamous incident, closed the day after Pham died; the owners recently opened a new restaurant, the North Left, in its place, emphasizing food over trendiness. Business in the area has notably suffered, with restaurateurs noting that what's missing is young Asians such as Pham.
"They were the ones coming in and spending money," said one restaurant owner, who requested anonymity. "Bunch of [UC Irvine] kids. But after Pham's death, they were too afraid to come—they thought Mexicans were ready to kill them."
* * *
The race-war angle never materialized in the trial. No other such crimes have happened in Orange County, let alone Santa Ana, since. And the word gang was uttered just once during testimony, as Zavala's attorney, Kenneth Reed, cross-examined Jacqueline Dinh, a close friend of Pham's who went with her to the Crosby the night Pham died. "So, you guys rolled together—" he began, asking about how they all drove to the area.
"We didn't roll together," Dinh interrupted angrily.
"No, I don't mean like in a gang; I meant you drove together," Reed clarified.
The Pham trial was completely neutral, almost devoid of anything race- or class-related. The prosecution set out to prove Zavala and Brito had kicked Pham in the head knowing full well that kicking someone there could kill them. Pino approached the trial methodically, presenting testimony from eyewitnesses point-by-point, making sure to not miss a detail. He'd often put on his reading glasses, which perpetually hung from his neck, to look over his notes.
The defense, in turn, sought to prove that Brito and Zavala weren't trying to kill Pham, that they were afraid for their safety and didn't mean to kick her in the head. Defense attorneys Reed and Molfetta played off each other's strengths, Reed hitting all of the technical aspects, as Molfetta spoke to the jury and won over witnesses with his charm. During the trial, Reed would go before Molfetta during arguments and testimony, laying a foundation of facts, frames pulled from videos and technicalities. Molfetta would then follow up, speaking directly to the jury about how he thought the entire situation was a tragedy or talking to witnesses, who, though visibly nervous moments before, would become more comfortable.
That such civility ruled the Pham trial—that it was ultimately a murder trial and nothing else—represented a small miracle, especially given Orange County history. In the fall of 1993, two groups of teenage boys—one predominantly white, one Latino—got into an argument at Calafia Beach in San Clemente. As the group of whites sped away in a truck, the Latinos threw rocks, buckets and other tools at the vehicle. One of the teens in the truck, 17-year-old Steve Woods, was impaled through the skull by a paint roller, setting off anti-Mexican vitriol from an old guard who felt their children were under attack by invading illegal immigrants, despite the fact that most of the Latinos were citizens or legal residents.
What happened next was a miscarriage of justice, nowadays discussed in history classes as a shameful part of our not-so-distant past. The Orange County district attorney's office spun a story of predatory Mexicans on the prowl to spill white blood, despite little evidence to prove it. The final result: five second-degree murder convictions (another defendant pleaded guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter) and a toxic atmosphere that served as fuel for the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, whose supporters held rallies showing the gruesome X-ray of the paint roller through Woods' skull as a warning of what happens when too many Mexicans are in Orange County.
Even with convictions in hand, the prosecution and Woods' family was unhappy. "I am so disgusted," Shellie Woods, Steve's older sister, told the Los Angeles Times after two of the boys were sentenced to the California Youth Authority instead of state prison. "My brother didn't get justice today."
The victim's mother would lead an unsuccessful recall campaign against presiding Judge Everett Dickey and threw her moral weight behind Prop. 187. "If our borders were controlled, probably my son would be alive today," Kathy Woods told the Times.
Thankfully, none of that happened during the Pham trial. It was supposed to be a game-changer; instead, it was just another murder case. And as callous as it sounds, it's ultimately a good thing.
* * *
Candace Brito and Vanesa Zavala will be sentenced on Sept. 12. They face up to 11 years in state prison.
Pham's death didn't turn into a rallying cry for Asian-American activists as did Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat in 1982 by laid-off autoworkers in a hate crime. There won't be any rallies demanding justice, no civil-rights groups issuing a call to arms. Even the local media, which provided wall-to-wall coverage in the weeks after her death, ultimately got over it; only the Weekly and Nguoi Viet sent reporters to cover the trial daily, with most outlets sending reporters just for opening and closing arguments and the verdict.
The most lasting reminder of that January night might be the utility box near where Pham was beaten. The night of her death, it was gunmetal gray; in the weeks that followed, it turned into a massive memorial that necessitated its own traffic barricade. Now, it's a collage of half-faces, part of a city public art project. Here is the new Orange County: Mexican, Vietnamese, African-American, young, old, smiling, frowning, brought together by tragedy instead of divided. Only one face is whole—Pham's—over which one of her poems is printed:
to light the sky
colors that marinate
as the sun says goodbye
as the hour approaches
when coals spark embers
we light a cigar
and then we remember
all the sadness and madness
all that we are
to love we surrender
and let time kiss our scars
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