You can tell from a photograph shown at his murder trial that Stephenson Choi Kim desperately wanted to think of himself as a tough guy.
In the picture, Kim is wearing that unmistakable hoodlum glare on his face while he points a handgun at the camera. See? I'm fearless, Kim's image conveys.
Yet, today, inside Orange County Superior Court Judge John Conley's courtroom, the 31-year-old San Gabriel resident and gang member cried over and over again like a baby as his pals, co-workers and family tried to save him from a one-way trip to San Quentin State Prison and Death Row.
My, how times have changed. Kim was stone-cold callous in 2004 when he entered a crowded Cypress restaurant, walked up to a table full of people he'd never met and began shooting. Four people were seriously wounded, and one, a gorgeous 22-year-old named Venus Hyun, was shot dead. Kim fled and enjoyed his newfound rising status in his street gang, according to police. Earlier this month, a jury convicted him and now Senior Deputy District Attorney Cameron Talley is asking the same jury to render the ultimate punishment.
But defense lawyers called witnesses who testified today that Kim--a person who celebrated his gang life by beating people in public and threatening to kill anyone who got in his way even before the murder case--was, in their opinion, as sweet and cuddly as a newborn puppy.
His stepmother said, "My son is kind and nice. . . . He had a good personality. . . . He was bright. . . . My nickname for him was 'smile-boy.' . . . He was very compassionate and very respectful to older people, and when they'd visit, he'd smile at them."
Kim sniffled and wiped his eyes while tears also rolled down the face of Juror No. 6, an older female.
A tall Korean-American man who admitted he'd been a member of a criminal street gang and carried the nickname "Menace" testified that he didn't care that Kim was convicted of shooting innocent people. "I like the guy," he said proudly. "We had a great time together."
A former co-worker described Kim as "very friendly, enthusiastic and energetic. . . . He always wanted to be the best."
She added, "He's an all-around good person. It was a privilege to be around him."
Talley, the prosecutor, asked her if Kim's unprovoked shooting rampage had changed her opinion of him.
This woman quickly responded, no.
Talley asked why.
"My opinion of him is not going to change because of his family values," she replied. "I will always support Steve."
Talley showed the witness a picture of the murdered victim and asked if what Kim had done would change her mind.
"He liked to talk about family values," she said. "So, he is a good person. That--[the murder] doesn't change Steve. I stand by Steve."
The testimony visibly moved Kim.
Then Kim's father testified. He said that when his son was about 4 years old, his mother committed suicide. "He was always a good son," he said. "He would always cling to me, and I saw him giving his mother hugs all the time."
But he also knew that his son had proudly joined a gang. In fact, he couldn't have missed that fact because gang signs had been placed on the walls inside the family's home.
"I chastized him for that, and he told me he wouldn't do it anymore," Kim's father testified.
Sitting at the defense table, Kim placed both hands over his face and wept some more for himself.
The jury will begin deliberations about Kim's punishment tomorrow.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly