Little Saigon’s Jonathan Phong Khanh Tran doesn’t look like a vicious murderer and his endearing, polite personality once prompted a veteran homicide detective to describe him as the “nicest” killer he’d ever met.
In Tran’s view, he doesn’t look or act like a murderer because he isn’t one.
But the 28-year-old Garden Grove man and onetime car salesman is living in prison after a 2007 Orange County jury found him guilty of the 2004 killing of a 15-year-old prostitute working a notoriously seedy section of Harbor Boulevard in Santa Ana.
The case attracted international attention because the victim, Hanna Montessori, was related to the Italian founder of the famed Montessori schools and had somehow become a Georgia runaway who’d landed in Southern California working for a pimp tied to the Crips criminal street gang.
The homicide incident began when Tran picked Montessori from several prostitutes at a fast food restaurant parking lot and said, “I want the white girl.”
In a nearby cul-de-sac, the prostitute jumped out of the moving vehicle, cracked her head on the pavement and died within minutes.
With the aid of the Santa Ana Police Department, Orange County prosecutor Cameron Talley built a case of first degree murder after collecting reports from other prostitutes that Tran raped them at gun point and, in another case, pretended to be a police officer to get free oral copulation.
In Aug. 2011, Tran–who came to the United States from Vietnam as an infant–asked federal judges to overturn his convictions for multiple reasons including there was insufficient evidence to support a felony murder theory that he tried to rape or rob Montessori, erroneous jury instructions and horribly incompetent defense lawyer work.
Incredibly, the defense team called a last-minute expert witness who asserted that Montessori had been possibly killed by a brick strike to head before being tossed out of the vehicle–a incriminating assertion by Tran’s own witness and an opinion even the prosecution didn’t buy.
Correen Ferrentino, the inmate’s current appellate attorney, argued, “[Tran’s] trial attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by the combination of his failure to adequately prepare the case; his failure to object or seek exclusion of critical, but inadmissible evidence; and his presentation of evidence that affirmatively harmed the defense case without any countervailing advantage.”
Ferrentino also asserted, “The trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the lesser included crime of involuntary manslaughter in view of substantive evidence that the victim died as a result of falling out of the vehicle during the commission of an unlawful act or a lawful act without due caution and circumspection.”
But the claims of an unjust conviction didn’t impressed U.S. Magistrate Judge Victor B. Kenton. “[Tran] has not identified a single constitutional error, let alone an accumulation of errors,” Kenton concluded after studying the case and a prior rejection of an similar appeal at a California Court of Appeal.
This month, U.S. District Court Judge Philip S. Gutierrez accepted Kenton’s recommendation to deny Tran’s request for federal relief and closed the appeal.
Upshot: Tran will continue serving an 83 years to life sentence inside the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.