People v. Tran

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation13 Cal.5th 1169,515 P.3d 1210,298 Cal.Rptr.3d 150
Docket NumberS165998
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Ronald Tri TRAN, Defendant and Appellant.
Decision Date29 August 2022

Catherine White, under appointment by the Supreme Court, San Diego, for Defendant and Appellant.

Xavier Becerra and Rob Bonta, Attorneys General, Gerald A. Engler and Lance E. Winters, Chief Assistant Attorneys General, Julie L. Garland, Ronald S. Matthias and James William Bilderback II, Assistant Attorneys General, Holly D. Wilkens and Christine Y. Friedman, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Liu, J.

A jury convicted defendant Ronald Tri Tran of first degree murder for the killing of Linda Park. ( Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a) ; all statutory references are to the Penal Code unless otherwise specified.) The jury found true the special circumstances of robbery murder ( § 190.2, subd. (a)(17)(A) ), burglary murder ( § 190.2, subd. (a)(17)(G) ), and torture murder ( § 190.2, subd. (a)(18) ). It also found true the enhancement that Tran committed the murder for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang. ( § 186.22, subd. (b)(1).) Following the penalty phase, the jury returned a verdict of death on November 5, 2007. The trial court denied Tran's motions for a new trial and for reduced punishment, denied the automatic motion to modify the verdict ( § 190.4, subd. (e) ), and sentenced Tran to death.

This appeal is automatic. ( § 1239, subd. (b).) We strike the gang enhancement but otherwise affirm the judgment.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Tran was tried jointly with Noel Plata. Both were sentenced to death. Plata died on December 14, 2020, and we ordered proceedings as to Plata abated, so we confine our review to Tran's claims only.

A. Guilt Phase
1. Prosecution Case
a. The November 9, 1995, Robbery of the Park Residence and Linda's Death

In November 1995, Linda Park lived in Irvine with her family: Sunhwa Park, her father; Dong Park, her mother; and Janie Park, her older sister. Sunwha typically worked from about 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. to about 8:00 p.m., while Dong typically worked from about 4:00 p.m. to about 10:00 p.m. On November 9, 1995, Sunhwa spoke to Linda by telephone around 5:00 p.m. to tell her that he would be home for dinner around 8:00 p.m.

After Linda spoke with Sunhwa, she spoke with Danny Son, her classmate, by telephone between 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. That evening, Linda was recording a greeting on Son's pager when someone arrived at the front door of the Park home. Son testified that Linda told him to wait and that she put her phone down. Linda seemed to be speaking to someone, Son recalled, but he could not make out their voice, only hers. Son testified that he heard Linda say, "What's wrong? What's your problem? You need help?" Son thought that Linda might be speaking to her sister, decided to hang up, and called her back about 30 minutes later, though only reached an answering machine.

Around 8:05 p.m., Sunhwa returned home. He noticed that the front door was already unlocked and, upon entering the home, discovered Linda in the living room. Linda was lying prone with her hands and feet tied behind her, Sunhwa testified. Sunhwa tried to call 911 but could not locate the telephone, so he eventually ran to the home of his neighbor, Marilyn Fox, and she called 911.

Law enforcement officers arrived soon after. One officer, Rolf Parkes, discovered Linda lying prone in the living room and observed that her ankles and wrists were bound behind her back with a nylonesque cord, that a grey electrical cord was wrapped around her neck and connected to the nylonesque cord, and that her vital signs were negative.

b. Crime Scene and Forensic Evidence

Sunhwa testified about valuables that were kept in their home. He testified that he typically stored cash in a brown jacket that was stored in a closet in their master bedroom. Janie and Linda knew where the jacket was kept, and Sunhwa allowed them to retrieve cash from it as needed. On November 9, 1995, Sunhwa said he had stored about $700 to $800 in this jacket. Sunhwa also explained how his wife, Dong, typically stored her jewelry inside boxes in the drawer of her makeup table in the master bedroom, including on November 9, 1995. Sunhwa also testified about his actions after he discovered Linda's body that evening. He ran to the master bedroom, where he noticed his brown jacket on the closet floor.

Parkes retrieved this jacket later and confirmed with Sunhwa that it was the jacket that typically contained money. There was no money in the jacket when he found it, Parkes testified. Parkes also explained how he observed two jewelry boxes atop a coffee table in the living room where Linda was found. An empty tray that looked like it belonged in one jewelry box was also on this table. And another living room table had various plants placed atop it, including a potted cactus that was lying on its side. Parkes also testified that the rest of the home was in a "very orderly, almost emaculate [sic ] condition," without evidence of ransacking, including in the master bedroom. Nor was there evidence of a forced entry into the home.

David Stoermer, a crime-scene investigator for the Irvine Police Department, testified about various items in the Park home and the attempt to collect fingerprints from it. He testified that the electrical cord around Linda's neck had a thermostat device on it and that the cord had been cut on one end with scissors or a knife. An empty heating pad box was found in the TV room. This box displayed a picture of a heating pad and an attached electrical cord that looked like the cord around Linda's neck, Stoermer testified. Yet no heating pad was found in the home or in the garage. The twine with which Linda was bound was not found in the home, there was no duct tape found there either, and a pair of scissors and Linda's pager were missing from there too. Nor were any fingerprints recovered, including from places like door-jambs and handles as well as from the jewelry boxes found atop the coffee table.

Mary Hong, a forensic scientist with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, testified about DNA analysis that she had performed for this case. She tested the electrical cord found on Linda's neck and did not discover any DNA relating to Tran or Plata. Yet a portion of the twine that was used to bind Linda showed a mixture of DNA from at least three people that was consistent with Linda and Tran being contributors.

c. Linda's Autopsy

Dr. Richard Fukumoto, a pathologist, testified that an autopsy showed that Linda died by asphyxiation

due to ligature strangulation. The electrical cord was wrapped twice around her neck. Among other injuries, Linda had indentations, abrasions, and contusions on her neck, wrists, and feet; hemorrhaging and a bruise on her left cheek below her eye; and two overlapping slash wounds on her neck. The injuries on her left cheek, Fukumoto testified, could have been caused by a fist, the palm of a hand, or the back of a hand. The injuries on her wrists indicated that Linda tried to escape the binding, Fukumoto continued. And the slash wounds could have been caused by a knife or scissors and were not deep enough to kill Linda immediately, though would have done so eventually. Fukumoto testified that the facial injuries, the slash wounds, and the binding would have happened before Linda was strangled. Fukumoto also testified that pain is associated with strangulation and that pain or stress can result in someone urinating on themselves.

d. Tran's and Plata's Statements to Friends

Jin Ae Kang, Tien Tran, and Linda Le testified about statements made by Tran and Plata. Some months after Linda's death, Kang learned that Tran told Tien Tran that he was involved in murdering a girl in Irvine, that the girl had recognized him, that she was bound, and that some cash and gold items were taken from the girl's home. At trial, Trien Tran testified that he vaguely remembered that Tran had told him he had killed somebody.

In an interview in January 2000, Linda Le told the police about statements by Plata. There, Le told law enforcement officers that she had overheard a conversation about "the incident" between Plata and her boyfriend, Terry Tackett, in which Tackett asked Plata if he had cleaned the knife. Le told law enforcement officials that, a few days after the conversation between Plata and Tackett, Plata was sad and upset and told her that he did not mean to do it and that he had robbed a house and the girl was home.

e. Tran's and Plata's Conversations with Qui Ly

Qui Ly was a well-respected member of the V gang, a gang allied with the VFL gang, and he testified about his various conversations with Tran and Plata. In a conversation in a Vietnamese restaurant, Plata told Ly about the murder of a young girl in Irvine. Ly testified that, while Ly and Tran were housed together at Anaheim City Jail from October 20, 1997, to November 21, 1997, Tran told him about a murder of a young girl in Irvine.

Later, Ly was convicted in 1999 for residential burglary and faced a potential sentence of 31 years to life in prison because of his prior strikes, so he decided to provide information to law enforcement about criminal activities throughout Southern California "to get some consideration on [his] sentence." In October 1999, Ly told Ronald Seman, an investigator on the Orange County District Attorney's Office's regional gang enforcement team, about Tran's and Plata's statements.

Based on this information, Seman arranged to place Ly in a cell in the Santa Ana jail so that he could speak with Tran and Plata separately. On February 28, 2001, Ly was first placed in a cell with Tran and then placed in one with Plata. Microphones were hidden behind a toilet paper holder in the cell, and the conversations were recorded. Portions of these conversations were played for the jury, and we discuss them below.

f. Joann Nguyen's...

To continue reading

Request your trial
7 cases
  • People v. Melara
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • December 1, 2022
    ...... 12022.53 provide ameliorative relief and apply retroactively. to nonfinal judgments. However, the parties (and appellate. courts) disagree whether section 1109 applies retroactively. Following the guidance of People v. Tran (2022) 13. Cal.5th 1169 ( Tran ), we conclude no prejudice arose. from trying Melara's underlying offense and gang. enhancement together, and we need not decide the issue of. section 1109's retroactivity. . .          Accordingly,. we remand ......
  • People v. Perez
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • December 7, 2022
    ...... 17, 2022, S275341, People v. Boukes (2022) 83. Cal.App.5th 937, 948 [same], and People v. Perez . (2022) 78 Cal.App.5th 192, 207 [same], review granted Aug. 17, 2022, S275090.). . .          Recently,. in People v. Tran (2022) 13 Cal.5th 1169, 1208-1210. ( Tran ), the California Supreme Court declined to. resolve the split, concluding any failure to bifurcate the. gang allegations was harmless. Notably, whether section 1109. applies retroactively to nonfinal cases is an issue currently. ......
  • People v. Gomez
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • November 21, 2022
    ...... enhancements. The People disagree on both points. . .          As our. Supreme Court has recently noted, case law is split on the. question of whether section 1109 applies retroactively to. convictions that are not yet final. ( People v. Tran . (2022) 13 Cal.5th 1169, 1208 ( Tran ).) Some published. opinions have held that section 1109 is not retroactive. (See, e.g., People v. Boukes (2022) 83 Cal.App.5th. 937, 948 [majority holding § 1109 is not retroactive;. concurrence holding it is retroactive], ......
  • People v. Lezama
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • December 12, 2022
    ......17, 2022, S275090;. People v. Ramirez (2022) 79 Cal.App.5th 48, 64-65,. review granted Aug. 17, 2022, S275341.) There is a split of. authority on whether section 1109 applies retroactively to. . 18 . . nonfinal cases. ( People v. Tran (2022) 13 Cal.5th. 1169, 1208.) We need not decide this issue. Even assuming. retroactivity, Lezama cannot show it is "reasonably. probable" he would have obtained a more favorable result. if his trial had been bifurcated. ( People v. Watson . (1956) 46 Cal.2d 818, ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT