Court Affirms Death Sentence For Gang Member In El Monte Pool Hall Killings

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The California Supreme Court today affirmed the death sentence of an Orange County gang member for the May 6, 1999, shooting deaths of three men and a woman at an El Monte pool hall.

In January 2003, a Pomona Superior Court jury found Anh The “Fat John'' Duong, then 27, guilty of three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder.

Jurors also found true the special circumstance allegation of multiple murders, which made the Garden Grove man eligible for the death penalty.

Superior Court Judge Robert Martinez sentenced Duong.

Killed at the now-closed International Club on Telstar Avenue were Minh Dieu Tram, 28, of West Covina; Hao The Tang, 22, of South El Monte; Robert Anthony Norman, 28, of Garden Grove; and Lan Thi Dang, 23, of Long Beach.

Authorities said the gunman argued with another man, then fired at least nine rounds and fled.

A manager at the club, who was celebrating his birthday at a table with friends who were gang members, allegedly told police that the argument was over a girl, although the manager later denied saying so during trial testimony.

Duong was charged in March 2001 and arrested in July 2001 while playing basketball at a Costa Mesa fitness center. The case was profiled on the TV show “America's Most Wanted.''

Duong was also a suspect in uncharged robbery shootings in San Jose and Fremont. In San Jose, the gunman fatally shot a supermarket employee who chased after him as Duong allegedly ran with a bag of $300,000. An employee was also killed in the Fremont shooting while the suspect was driving away from the scene.

The defendant's girlfriend, who was granted immunity by prosecutors, testified about a third, non-fatal shooting of a security guard during a failed attempt to rob a Newport Beach jewelry store. The girlfriend also told authorities about the killing of a security guard at a Cupertino jewelry store.

Duong was indicted in October 2001 for the El Monte murders.

On appeal, Duong's defense attorneys argued that he should have been granted a change of venue given media coverage of the various shootings and the “America's Most Wanted'' episode.

The California Supreme Court rejected that argument, saying the media coverage was not “sensational and extensive'' and noting that only 10 of the 142 potential jurors -- and none of the 12 selected -- reported seeing any news stories about the case. Two of five alternate jurors did see such stories, though it was not clear whether they were called to deliver the verdict.

The defendant also argued that he was misled about whether he should testify in his own defense.

Defense counsel told the trial court judge that Duong would testify that he shot Tram in defense of another person, then accidentally shot the other three victims while he and a co-owner of the club struggled over the gun. Prosecutors said they would then cross-examine the defendant about the four uncharged shootings they believed he had committed.

The defense argued that those shootings were irrelevant because they involved robberies, unlike this incident, and asked the judge to make a tentative ruling on the issue before their client took the stand.

The judge said he would allow evidence about the 1997 San Jose robbery and 1998 Fremont robbery -- Duong was alleged to have killed one person in each incident -- but exclude the other two robberies where Duong's status as the shooter was unclear. Duong decided not to take the stand.

The California Supreme Court ruled that Duong's decision not to do so was knowing, intelligent and voluntary, and he should have understood that he could not appeal the trial judge's ruling unless he testified at trial.

In affirming the death sentence, the court also found other arguments, including that Duong's gang membership should not have been admissible, unconvincing.

While jailed in September 2001, awaiting trial, Duong slashed his arm with a shank in what he said was a suicide attempt.

In arguing for the death penalty, the prosecutor reminded the jury how Duong had manipulated his girlfriend to do his bidding.

“Is that the conduct of a man that in any way will ever, ever be anything but a threat to other people?'' the prosecutor asked. “Do you think just because he has (life in prison without the possibility of parole) that his conduct will ever change, that he will not be a danger?''

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