Reading from a handwritten speech, a handcuffed California ecstasy pill dealer apologized to an Orange County judge this week for abusing his opportunities as a fleeing immigrant from communist Vietnam and, in hope for leniency, promised that when he emerges from prison he'll be law abiding.
"My conduct was wrong and unethical," said a soft-spoken Thanh Van Tran, who arrived with his family in the United States at the age of eight in 1980, grew up in Denver and Stockton, and often chose crime and drugs over productivity in his life. "I didn't think of the consequences. I apologize."
In March 2013, undercover Torrance Police Department officers conducting a confidential informant operation arrested Tran, a high school dropout born in 1972, at his Jasmine Place apartment in the heart of Little Saigon and recovered a whopping five kilos of MDMA, the chemical ingredient for the popular party drug ecstasy or simply "X."
Tran's public defender asked U.S. District Court David O. Carter to impose a 60-month prison sentence after asserting that her divorced client feels genuine remorse, wasn't a major drug dealer and wants to minimize the amount of time away from his daughter.
Neither the U.S. Probation Office nor Assistant United States Attorney Nicholas A. Pilgrim were impressed by defense efforts to downplay the seriousness of the trafficking.
A probation officer recommended a sentence of 135 months and Pilgrim–who pointed out that only a major drug dealer would have access to 11 pounds of pure ecstasy–was willing to back a term of no less than 97 months.
"He chose not to live a law-abiding life," Pilgrim told the judge. "You have to be plugged in to have access to five kilos of MDMA."
Carter–a former acclaimed homicide prosecutor and state judge before President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Senate gave him a lifetime appointment to the federal bench–is fair and compassionate, but also unmistakably stern.
Over the objection of the defense lawyer, the judge left the bench, marched up to Tran–the son of a former South Vietnamese Army captain–and told the defendant to roll up his shirt sleeves. He wanted to check for crime-touting tattoos. Carter grabbed the man's left arm, pinched a heavily inked section above the elbow and said, "What is this dragon?"
A visibly nervous Tran replied that it was a tattoo he'd gotten as a teenager.
To lighten the tension at the tail end of his inspection, Carter jokingly asked if he also had a swastika or lightening bolt tattoo–symbols of white supremacist gangsters.
Tran smiled and said no.
Later, back on the bench, the judge–expertly playing good cop/bad cop himself–declared, "I don't like your tattoos."
But Carter's biggest outrage aimed at the defendant's callousness to embarrass his immigrant family and their life-risking efforts escaping communism to live and prosper in the U.S.
"How dare you?" said the judge, a U.S. Marine who fought and earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in the 1968 Battle of Khe Sahn–one of the most ferocious conflicts of the Vietnam War. "You have violated all of [your family's] sacrifice."
He gave the drug dealer a term of 97 months in prison and will push for incarceration officials to enter him into a drug diversion program while he's in custody.
Tran never bothered to get his U.S. citizenship and so a narcotics trafficking conviction also means that federal immigration officials can potentially initiate deportation proceedings when he leaves prison.
Before moving to the next case, Carter told him he better not join an Asian criminal gang in prison. Tran promised he wouldn't. To underscore his advice, the judge warned the defendant that he'll be watching and will summon him back to his courtroom on a monthly basis when he gets released from custody in 2022.
"Young man," Carter said with genuine sincerity, "good luck."