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Is Death Penalty or Guilty Verdict Barred by AB 333?

Between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. one evening in November 1995, Ronald Tri Tran went to the Irvine house of Linda Park to commit a burglary.  Park was a student at Irvine Valley College.

Tran was a member of V gang, a gang allied with the VFL gang, a well-know, but small Vietnamese gang that specialized in robbing homes and cars, sold weapons, possessed narcotics and extorted businesses in the Gardena and Hawthorne area.  The V gang was group of much more violent Vietnamese members that specialized in home-invasion robberies and were known to be violent. 

When Tran knocked on the door of Ms. Park before intending to break in and enter (expecting to find no one home), Ms. Park answered the front door and Tran proceeded with the burglary while killing Ms. Park.  He stole jewelry and cash from the house.

When Ms. Park’s parents returned home from work later, they found their daughter’s body.  Ms. Park had been strangled to death with an electrical cord.  Here ankles and wrists had been bound by electrical tape.  Her back also had some cuts that appeared to be slashes from a knife or scissors.

Tran and a co-defendant, Noel Plata, were later arrested (Mr. Plata’s role appears to have been a driver) and charged with the murder of Ms. Park.

During trial, Mark Nye, a police officer designated as a “gang expert,” testified about the VFL gang, Tran’s and Plata’s membership in the gang and how the gang operated.  Nye testified how a hypothetical burglary and murder like the one at issue would assist, promote or enhance the reputation of the VFL gang.  Nye testified how VFL members had committed a similar first degree residential burglary to benefit the gang. 

A jury convicted Mr. Tran of first degree murder of Ms. Park.  The jury found true the special circumstances of robbery murder (Penal Code § 190.2(a)(17)(A)), burglary murder (Penal Code § 190.2(a)(17)(G)) and torture murder (Penal Code § 190.2(a)(18)). 

The jury also found true that Tran committed the murder for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang (Penal Code § 186.22(b)(1).

Following the penalty phase, the jury returned a verdict of death in 2007. 

On an automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court, in 2022, the California Supreme Court struck the gang enhancement, but otherwise affirmed the judgment and death sentence.

While the appeal was being considered, Assembly Bill 333 was passed, which increased the amount of evidence required to prove a defendant committed a crime in association with, to promote or assist a criminal street gang.  The new law required more proof of two or more prior crimes committed by the gang to show “predicate acts” and to establish a pattern of gang activity that was similar to the crime at issue.  The new law also allowed, upon defendant’s request, bifurcation of the trial under Penal Code § 1109 into adjudication of the gang enhancement charge in one proceeding separate from all other charges.  Lastly, the new law required that the predicate offenses and the underlying offense provide more than reputational benefit to the gang.  People v. Sek (2022) 74 Cal. App. 5th 657, 666-667.

Tran therefore argued, in supplementing his automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court, that the failure to bifurcate trial for him violated his rights under Assembly Bill 333, as it is retroactive, and therefore the verdict must be vacated to allow a retrial and the death sentence must be similarly vacated pending a new trial.

The California Supreme Court framed the issue, in deciding on this argument, as dependent upon whether the failure to bifurcate was to Tran’s death judgment was sufficient prejudicial because “there is a reasonable probability such an error affected the verdict.,” a standard that is “the same, in substance and effect” as the standard set out in Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U.S. 18 (whether there was a due process violation because the error rendered the trial fundamentally unfair).

Here, the California Supreme Court found no such reasonable probability for Mr. Tran.  The Court explained then that Penal Code § 1109 only requires bifurcation as to “the question of the defendant’s guilt of the underlying offense” and “the truth of the enhancement.”  It makes no change to the manner in which the penalty phase of capital proceedings should be conducted. 

Moreover, given the usual rule that any evidence admitted at the guilt phase may be considered at the penalty phase (People v. Garton (2018) 4 Cal. 5th 485, 522), any evidence admitted in a bifurcated trial, including any gang evidence, could have been considered during Tran’s penalty phase.  Accordingly, “we cannot conclude there was a reasonable probability that a bifurcated trial at the guilty phase would have affected the penalty phase decision.”

Nonetheless, while the death penalty remained the sentence, the California Supreme Court reversed the jury’s true finding of the gang enhancement because the evidence at trial was that the crimes were committed to enhance the gang’s reputation only, which is not permitted under AB 333 for a true finding of the gang enhancement.

For more information about AB 333, please click on the following articles:
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