Tuesday, June 5, 2001
Ninth Circuit Rejects Speedy-Trial Challenge, Says Client Bound by Lawyer’s Continuance Requests
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the conviction and life sentence imposed on a Vietnamese immigrant who arranged the firebombing of his former best friend’s home and killed the man’s niece.
The three-judge panel rejected claims that Tanh Huu Lam, who admitted arranging the attack on Trung Pham’s Carmichael home because Pham was dating Lam’s former wife, was denied a speedy trial and that prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense.
Lam, whose original trial for arson resulting in death ended in a hung jury, agreed to plead guilty—reserving the right to appeal—after an admitted accomplice was captured and agreed to testify against him at a new trial. Prosecutors had said they would seek the death penalty based on the additional testimony.
The accomplice received a nine-year sentence.
Judge William Shubb of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California imposed a life sentence, the maximum permitted by the plea bargain. Shubb described Lam as a man with “no conscience” who deserved the life term for orchestrating the firebombing that killed Hien Tran just before her 10th birthday and injured three of her relatives.
Lam at first denied the crime, then claimed to have been in a jealous rage following his divorce. Having one’s wife leave him for another man is a disgrace in his culture, Lam—who was apprehended as he waited to board a flight to Vietnam—said.
He told Shubb at sentencing that he hired the men who burned the house down but didn’t intend to kill anyone.
On appeal, he argued that the long delays in his case, 14 months from arrest to the beginning of his first trial and nearly a year from the end of the first trial to the entry of his plea, violated his rights under the Sixth Amendment and the Speedy Trial Act.
Senior Judge Betty B. Fletcher, in her opinion for the Ninth Circuit, agreed that the delays were sufficiently lengthy to invite scrutiny, especially since Lam had repeatedly written to the district judge and other officials, asserting his desire for a speedy trial.
But Fletcher said the delays were only slightly excessive, given the complexity and seriousness of the case, and said that other factors weighed heavily against reversing Lam’s conviction.
All of the delays, the judge noted, resulted from continuances requested by Lam’s court-appointed attorney, who said he needed the time to prepare for a possible penalty phase, to file and argue motions, and to keep up with other cases.
Delays attributable to counsel are imputed to the defendant, Fletcher said, as long as counsel performs competently and seeks continuances in good faith. This is true, the judge said, even if the defendant has personally asserted a desire for a speedy trial.
Also weighing against reversal, the judge said, was the defendant’s inability to show sufficient prejudice. While the defendant’s incarceration pending trial was prejudicial, Fletcher explained, the prejudice wasn’t undue given the seriousness of the charges and the fact Lam eventually pled guilty.
Fletcher went on to reject Lam’s claim that prosecutors presented knowingly false testimony in the form of police testimony that Lam had claimed to have purchased gasoline cans—seized in a search of his residence—two years earlier. Prosecutors presented evidence that some of the cans had been manufactured the year before they were seized, and argued that Lam was lying.
The defense, however, after retaining a Vietnamese interpreter just before trial, claimed that Lam had only claimed to have bought “some of” the cans two years earlier.
Fletcher said the discrepancy appeared to be “an honest disagreement” rather than prosecutorial misconduct. The defense, she said, had ample opportunity to attack the prosecution’s evidence.
Judges Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain and Ronald M. Gould concurred in the opinion.
The case is United States v. Lam, 99-10463.