There may have been screams of joy in a California prison last night and cries of frustration inside the district attorney's office.
Late yesterday afternoon, a California Court of Appeal overturned an Orange County jury's 2007 special circumstances murder convictions and a judge's multiple life sentences against Little Saigon's Son Ngoc Nguyen.
The 24-year-old Nguyen admitted that in 2005 he drove a car occupied by Tri “Boney” Huynh, a convicted killer and “hothead” member of the Tiny Rascal's criminal street gang. But he said he was unaware that the gangster had a handgun tucked into his waistband and planned to execute others outside Westminster's Hai Do Restaurant over a $1,300 debt and an argument at the Shark Club in Costa Mesa.
Westminster Police detective Tim Walker–a Vietnamese gang expert, prosecutor Jim Mendelson, Judge James A. Stotler and a jury concluded that Nguyen, whom Walker called a member of the Viet Family gang, shared responsibility for the crimes largely because he served as the getaway driver.
While Nguyen sat in his car outside the restaurant, Huynh fired multiple shots including three which were fired at near point blank range into Dung Nguyen's head, according to police records.
“Nguyen [who denied gang affiliation] argues there was insufficient evidence to support his convictions for the murder of Dung Nguyen and the attempted murder of Huong Nguyen,” wrote Justice Kathleen O'Leary for a three-member appellate panel. “We agree.”
The justices went on the label the government's case against Nguyen as “too speculative.”
“The inference the jury was asked to draw was that Boney could rely on Nguyen to be his wheel man and, therefore, Nguyen shared Boney's intent to kill,” the opinion says. “But there is insufficient evidence to establish these crimes were gang crimes and to support a reasonable inference that Nguyen would have known Boney's intentions.”
According to the evidence cited by the justices, Boney had called Nguyen after the Shark Club fight, asked him to pick him up because he was drunk and got him to drive to the Little Saigon restaurant by saying he needed to see his “homeboys.”
It's not all great news for Nguyen, now 24, though. Sure, he won't now spend his life in prison but the justices sent the case back to Stotler for re-sentencing. They upheld his convictions for two other counts including street terrorism. Stotler originally thought those counts merited seven years in prison, but ran them concurrent to the life counts.
This afternoon, Susan Kang Schroeder–public affairs counsel for the Orange County District Attorney's office–said that prosecutors continue to believe there is “sufficient evidence that Nguyen brought the gun” to Boney before the killing. Schroeder says the DA's office now will confer with the California Attorney General on whether to appeal the ruling to the state supreme court.
–R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly