People v. Chhoun

Citation480 P.3d 550,11 Cal.5th 1,275 Cal.Rptr.3d 2
Decision Date11 February 2021
Docket NumberS084996
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Run Peter CHHOUN, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

Michael J. Hersek and Mary K. McComb, State Public Defenders, under appointments by the Supreme Court; Denise Anton and Alexander Post, Deputy State Public Defenders, for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Lance E. Winters, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Joseph P. Lee and Toni R. Johns Estaville, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Corrigan, J.

During a home invasion robbery, defendant Run Peter Chhoun and fellow gang members killed the entire Nguyen family except three-year-old Dennis. The child was wounded and left alone overnight with the bodies of his parents and siblings. Defendant was tried with alleged accomplice Samreth Pan. The court dismissed all charges against Pan at the close of the People's case. Defendant was convicted of five counts of murder, one count of residential burglary, and three counts of residential robbery with enhancements for personal use of a firearm.1 He was acquitted of the attempted murder of Dennis. The jury found true special circumstances of murder during burglary and robbery and the murder of multiple victims.2 It set the penalty at death. We affirm the judgment.

A. Guilt Phase

In the summer of 1995, defendant (nicknamed "Chaka") and Pan (nicknamed "Rusty") were "shot callers" and "O.G.s"3 in the Tiny Rascals Gang (TRG). Vinh Tran ("Scrappy") and William Evans were junior members. Although not officially a member of the gang, Nhung Tran ("Karol") "took care of" young girls who associated with TRG members. All five were originally charged together. Because Scrappy and Evans were juveniles, however, their cases were later severed, as was the case against Karol.4 Evans and Karol testified at trial pursuant to plea agreements.5

1. Elm Street Home Invasion Robbery and Murders

In late July, defendant asked Karol if she knew a good place to rob. Karol described a family in San Bernardino who were likely to have cash and jewelry in the house. She believed a husband and wife lived there with a child and grandmother. Karol said the family would be a good target because they were Vietnamese and, she believed, would not call the police.

Although Karol did not want to be part of the robbery because her parents lived nearby, defendant ultimately persuaded her to join him. He also recruited Evans and Scrappy, and the crime took place on August 9. Defendant had a Glock nine-millimeter pistol but wanted a second gun. He drove the group to Pan's house. He told Pan they were on their way to commit a robbery and asked for Pan's gun. Pan said he did not want to be involved but provided a Glock pistol, which defendant handed to Scrappy.

Defendant drove to the target house on Elm Street. Karol was to approach the front door because she knew the residents. While she knocked, Scrappy stood behind a bush, armed with Pan's gun. When Henry Nguyen6 answered the door, Scrappy rushed inside, followed by defendant and Evans. Karol fled to defendant's red Honda, which he had parked outside.

The Nguyens did not understand English, and Scrappy was the only robber who spoke Vietnamese. Defendant gave orders that Scrappy translated to the family. Initially, Henry, his wife, Trinh Tran, and their 13-year-old daughter Doan were the only family members in the living room. Scrappy appeared with three children from another room: 11-year-old Daniel, 10-year-old David, and 3-year-old Dennis. Everyone was ordered to get on the floor. Evans searched the house while Scrappy demanded cash. Henry said they had none, but when defendant threatened Dennis with a large knife Henry turned over about $2,000. When Daniel volunteered that he had some money in his bedroom, Evans followed him into a hallway. Evans heard a gunshot and returned to the living room, to see Henry lying facedown. Defendant stood less than a foot away holding a gun. At defendant's order, Evans left the house and sat in the car with Karol. Both reported hearing several gunshots from inside the house. Karol estimated the robbers had been in the house about 15 minutes before the first shots were fired. A neighbor heard several gunshots and saw a car drive away.

Defendant drove the group to Karol's house. In the car, defendant remarked, "It must have been the wrong house," because there was no grandmother and the family did not have as much money as he had expected. He said five people had been killed. He handed Scrappy a gun, directing him to unload it. Later, he told Karol he had held "the little boy" at knifepoint trying to get more money from the mother. Pan was waiting at Karol's house, and defendant returned his pistol. Learning of the murders, Pan became extremely angry and called the group stupid. Defendant doled out cash to everyone but Pan. They also divided some of the Nguyens’ jewelry. Defendant told everyone to "act like nothing's happened," and they spent the rest of the evening at a pool hall. Defendant told other gang members he had done some of the shooting at the Elm Street house. He was also overheard saying that "Scrappy went crazy and shot a kid."

The next morning, Henry's sister called the Nguyen home. The phone rang for a long time. Dennis finally answered and said, "Mommy's dead." Karol's mother went to the house and heard Dennis crying inside. He finally opened the door and then sat next to his mother's body. Henry, Trinh, and David lay dead on the living room floor. Toothpaste had been smeared around Trinh's nostrils, mouth, and eyes, the tube discarded near her body. Another neighbor found Doan and Daniel lying dead in a bedroom. All had been shot repeatedly. Dennis was holding his brother's head and "just crying, screaming."

Dennis had been shot in the hand. Henry was shot in the head and neck. One shot was fired with the gun's muzzle placed directly against his skull. He was also shot in the chest at close range while lying on the floor. Four superficial cuts

on the back of his neck had been inflicted by a sharp object, like a knifepoint. Trinh was shot once in the thigh and twice in the head, at very close range. Two of her teeth were detached by the force of the bullets. The oldest child, Doan, was shot in the leg, chest, and head. Another bullet pierced a hand that she had held up to protect her face. Daniel was shot in the lower leg and chest. David was shot twice in the chest and once in the back of the head.

Several nine-millimeter cartridge cases and spent bullets were found in the living room. Trinh's emptied purse was found in the hallway. A meat cleaver rested atop the stereo cabinet. More casings and rounds were recovered near the victims in a bedroom. Fourteen of the fired casings were Winchester, and one was S&B brand. All were fired from the same Glock nine-millimeter pistol.7 No fingerprints matching the gang members were found in the house, but a latex glove was discarded in the backyard.

Shortly after the crimes, defendant told Jonathan Ibarra that he had committed the robbery. He said five people were killed but "somebody fucked up in the house and one got away." He shot that one in the arm. Ibarra had seen both defendant and Pan with nine-millimeter Glock pistols around the time of the murders. Defendant later told a jail inmate that Scrappy had squirted toothpaste in a woman's face during the robbery. He said it was poison and ordered the family to "[t]ell him where the fuckin’ money is or she's going to die."

2. Sacramento Home Invasion Murders

Defendant and other TRG members were linked to a home invasion incident in Sacramento almost two weeks before the Elm Street crimes. Jurors were admonished that the Sacramento evidence was admitted for a limited purpose to show "a common scheme, motive, or knowledge" bearing upon the intent of defendant and Pan to commit the Elm Street murders.

Defendant, Pan, Scrappy, and Evans drove to Sacramento and met with other TRG members to plan a robbery. Bunjun Chhinkhathork (nicknamed "Puppet") suggested robbing an apartment where the owners sold cigarettes and other items. On the evening of July 27, 1995, defendant drove to a park then led Pan and Evans through a fence to the residence. He told Chhinkhathork to stay in the car as the getaway driver.

Quyen Luu and her husband, Hung Dieu Le, operated a small store in their home. Their 17-year-old daughter Amie was sitting on the stairs of the building when defendant, Pan, and Evans approached. One pointed a gun at her and gestured for her to follow. Instead, she yelled for her mother to close the door and ran upstairs to a neighbor's apartment, where her brother Vincent and sister Mei were visiting. The Le family was just finishing dinner when a robber entered. He struggled with Quyen, shooting her in the leg, then shot Hung and his father, Nghiep Thich Le, several times. The parties stipulated that 47-year-old Hung died of a gunshot to the chest, and 73-year-old Nghiep was killed by a shot to the head.

Evans testified that defendant went into the apartment alone. When the three returned to the car, Chhinkhathork drove away. Defendant said he shot "the lady" because she tried to grab him. He also shot a man who had tried to hit him with a chair. He later joked to Karol about the "stupid guy" who thought he could "stop a bullet with a chair." After the incident, defendant drove Evans and other TRG members back to San Bernardino. They acquired no money in the attack.

None of the survivors could identify the attackers, but all said only one man held a gun and did the shooting. About an hour before the robbery, a different man had come to the apartment, bought candy, then joined the eventual shooter. They drove off together in a Honda Accord with a damaged front fender. The car, registered to Pan's mother, was...

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