Was Phuc Van Tran Sane When He Put On a Darth Vader Mask and Shot a Man?
Return of the Sith
Does a Darth Vader-masked gunman in thrall to Superman deserve a second chance?
On Aug. 18, 2001, at the now-defunct Stanton miniature-golf course and video arcade Golfland, a man named James Walker approached a game console that had been monopolized for more than three hours by 31-year-old Phuc Van Tran, a truck driver and veteran of the U.S. Navy. In the time-tested manner of gamers everywhere, Walker, who had turned 25 that very day, placed his coin on the machine, indicating that he wanted the next play. Tran ignored him but eventually walked away. Walker enjoyed a couple of plays on the machine, then headed to the snack-bar area.
Thirty minutes later, a man in a Darth Vader mask, clad in dark clothes, walked toward Walker and shot him in the stomach with a 9 mm pistol. The assailant then tried to flee the scene and was confronted by another Golfland patron, Douglas Grcevic. The 33-year-old Grcevic was pistol-whipped for his trouble, but he managed to remove the Vader mask to reveal Tran's face. Tran escaped from Golfland, hiding his sweat shirt and handgun in a plastic bag in a manhole. When police found him moments later, he was wearing a blue polo shirt, black jeans and leather dress shoes; he claimed he was sweating because he'd been out jogging.
Walker survived, and no one doubts that Tran did the shooting. But the question of whether or not he even knows he did it—and why—still lingers.
Prior to the crime, Tran believed he was being pursued. He began wrapping himself in plastic and sleeping in a doghouse in his back yard rather than indoors, according to his father, Tro Tran. Phuc Van Tran testified and wrote that he believed he was being hunted for sport and contacted by "the Borg," the cybernetic Star Trek aliens known for assimilating weaker races and turning them into mechanical drones. He claimed Superman was telling him to write a letter to his employer about how the truck he drove at work was becoming a poisonous gas chamber. Finally, Superman told him that Walker was part of a conspiracy of people trying to poison him and needed to be shot.
Several times during the initial trial, Tran would write letters to the judge, sometimes asking to represent himself because he felt his attorneys were out to get him; other times, he would advocate a new strategy in Iraq that needed to be sent to President George W. Bush immediately, or argue that China was in league with the Borg to bring down America. He even tried to curry favor by offering helpful advice: "Judge Daniel [Didier, the calendar judge prior to the actual trial], the only thing I can give you this new year is drink one glass of water every day. This will help you live longer and cures many kind of illness."
The jury found Tran guilty in February 2005; Superior Court Judge Gary Paer sent him to prison for life. Deputy District Attorney Nico Dourbetas successfully persuaded the jury that Tran was fully aware of what he was doing, arguing that "he fled the scene, and then hid these items and ran and told police officers when he was caught that he was out jogging. This shows that he knew what he was doing."
The defense appealed on the grounds that Paer ignored their request for special instructions to the jury about the distinction between legal wrongdoing and moral wrongdoing. Could Tran have somehow believed he had no choice but to shoot?
"I want to report something that is terrible has happen to me," Tran wrote while in custody. "Someone has put some kind of poison gas bacteria in my truck that I work. They also put some kind of poison gas in my apartment where I live, I move somewhere else to live and they did the same thing happen. . . . I also learn that, this poison gas bacteria are contagious, it live on cloths an fabric, its product dusk dirt particle from cloths and fabric . . . Because I was in the military, I was train to detect chemical and biological poison gas warfare attack."
As Dennis Gaughan, an attorney who worked with the public defender's office on the original case, puts it, "The experts will tell you that if you feel that someone is going to hurt you and you are defending yourself, regardless of whether you're trying to flee afterward, you could still have that defense available to you that it was an imperfect self-defense."
Last year, a state Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana agreed with Gaughan, concluding that if Paer had properly instructed the jury, they would have "likely" found Tran insane. The justices ordered a new mental-competency hearing, which is now set for April. Tran has been transferred from Wasco State Prison to an Orange County jail for the hearing.
Dennis O'Connell, Tran's current defense attorney, isn't sure his client will be found fit to stand trial. "He's deteriorated so severely while he's been in prison," O'Connell says. "It appears he's not even comprehending what you're saying, even if you speak in the most basic sentences."
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