A hail of fatal .357 magnum bullets fired 21 years ago into a frightened Honda CRX driver sitting at a red light in Garden Grove resulted in an international manhunt and numerous arrests. But the murder of UC Irvine student Robert Sapinoso continues to generate controversy inside federal court. The lingering question: Did a defense lawyer, who is now a prominent Orange County judge, render lousy trial work that sabotaged an Asian gang boss?
Some facts of the case aren't in dispute. On Aug. 17, 1994, Sapinoso and college buddy Edward Bergenholtz stood outside Bergenholtz's Boyd Street residence and saw a suspicious gray van drive by slowly. They thought the occupants might have been responsible for vandalism committed the night before in the neighborhood and jumped into the white CRX for a chase. At the intersection of Trask Avenue and Newland Street near the 22 freeway, Huan Van Nguyen, a leader of the Dragon Family criminal street gang, exited the van, quickly walked toward the CRX, raised a handgun from behind his back and, at a distance of a few feet, fired four or five shots into the car. Glass loudly shattered. Sapinoso died; Bergengholtz, who'd ducked, wasn't struck and claimed they'd initiated the tail only to get a license-plate number for police.
Authorities later won multiple convictions against the van's other occupants and an extradited Nguyen, who was captured in Canada after a side trip to Boston; he narrowly escaped the death penalty after his 2002 trial, at which jurors couldn't agree on a punishment. Two years later, Judge William R. Froeberg issued a term of life without the possibility of parole. Now 41 years old and a resident of the California State Prison at Lancaster, Nguyen and his veteran, Costa Mesa appellate attorney, Correen Ferrentino, argue the case is a travesty of justice. He acknowledges he's the shooter but claims the government's theory of a special-circumstances, lying-in-wait murder rests on wrongly excluded evidence that, if it had been admitted for jury consideration, could have resulted in a lesser conviction and a return to freedom after his prison stint.
This is where Thomas M. Goethals enters the story. Before he became an OC Superior Court judge handling felony trials, Goethals worked as a homicide prosecutor, then as a defense lawyer. He has earned a reputation on the bench as a stickler on ethics and a commander of complex legal issues, especially in the ongoing People v. Scott Dekraai scandal, over which he presides. Though he saved Nguyen (a.k.a. "Cha") from capital punishment, he's not getting any sincere thank-you notes. The killer believes he's the victim of "ineffective" trial work that took what should have been a voluntary-manslaughter case and made it first-degree murder eligible for the death penalty.
In Ferrentino's recounting of events, there was no lying-in-wait factor. The van's occupants drove down Boyd Street, saw Sapinoso and Bergenholtz outside, stared but didn't yell a word–including any gang lingo–and left the neighborhood, a story backed by eyewitnesses. Nguyen believed the men, also of Asian descent, belonged to a rival, Little Saigon-region gang, VFL (Vietnamese for Life), that had previously assaulted a Dragon Family colleague, according to court records. Worse, Nguyen saw them enter a garage, assumed they were retrieving a weapon for a lethal attack and ordered the van's driver to leave the area. Though police didn't recover a weapon in the victim's car after Bergenholtz drove it to a hospital, two independent witnesses in the neighborhood thought the men carried a gun at the outset of the pursuit.
But Goethals decided to not call those witnesses during the guilt phase of the trial. To Ferrentino, the move was a huge tactical blunder that worked against a legitimate "imperfect self-defense" claim in which Nguyen had an "actual but unreasonable belief in the necessity to defend himself" against his pursuers.
"This additional evidence would have arguably cast the victims in an entirely different light and would have certainly supported the testimony about [Nguyen's] stated concerns that he was being followed by armed, rival gang members," she wrote in an appellate brief. "Instead, without this evidence, the prosecution was allowed to portray, without defense refutation, that the occupants of the CRX were merely innocent victims trying to get a license [-plate] number."
Ferrentino claims Goethals didn't properly investigate other potential pro-defense evidence: Sapinoso and Bergenholtz had gunshot residue on their hands after the incident. Those findings likely meant either Nguyen's close-range firings were responsible or they'd handled a gun themselves. Bergenholtz testified he wasn't a gangster and didn't possess a weapon, but Goethals didn't seek a forensic answer. He also didn't take advantage of records that showed police had been summoned to Bergenholtz's home more than a dozen times for suspected gang-related issues, according to Ferrentino.
"Without [those pieces of evidence], Nguyen's otherwise-viable self-defense claims appeared contrived, disingenuous and incredible," she observed. "Coupled with [Goethals'] other failures, Nguyen was denied effective counsel and a fair trial."
In his own accounting for reviewing judges, Goethals defended his role in the "dangerous and difficult" case in which he told Nguyen to not testify. He explained his tactical moves had one aim: saving his client from the death penalty. The decision against summoning the gun witnesses until the penalty phase "haunted" him in the aftermath, but he still thinks it was the correct call because of potential credibility issues.
Goethals' work gained support from U.S. Magistrate Judge Margaret A. Nagle. Earlier this year, Nagle issued a report that noted her legal obligation to accept facts most favorable to the prosecution and sided with a state appellate court's previous ruling against the defendant's complaints. "[Nguyen] has failed to overcome the strong presumption that Goethals' advice that he should not testify fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance and, thus, was not constitutionally deficient," Nagle opined.
The California Attorney General's office also backed Nguyen's murder conviction. In a brief for Nagle's consideration, they described the crime as an "ambush" of "sitting ducks" by a killer who concocted a fraudulent self-defense tale.
"From the evidence, a rational juror could reasonably find [Nguyen] launched a surprise attack on the unsuspecting victims from a position of advantage immediately upon obtaining the opportune time to act," Deputy Attorney General Ronald A. Jakob wrote. "The pivotal issue for imperfect self-defense was whether Nguyen believed the victims had a gun–not whether some other witnesses entertained that belief. Any evidence beyond that fact would not have changed the outcome of the trial, and any witness testimony to that effect was best used to successfully infuse a lingering doubt in the penalty phase."
In late July, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson accepted Nagle's findings. Wilson closed the matter after blocking additional federal appeals. Barring extraordinary events, Nguyen will die in his state prison cell and Goethals will continue overseeing the biggest pending death-penalty case in the county: Dekraai, stemming from the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre. Prosecutors want him executed. Dekraai's public defender, Scott Sanders, claims our local criminal-justice system has a history of tainted outcomes and can't be trusted to fairly impose the government's ultimate punishment.