Thursday, December 21, 2006

Jury finds Tran Guilty

For those of us that live in Kenosha, we have been following this trial pretty intently.

Yesterday, a jury found Trang Tran, a UW Parkside student, guilty of negligent homicide-

Trang T. Tran’s trial began with sobs and ended eight days later with silence.

Tran, 24, of Salem, stood motionless Wednesday afternoon as she learned jurors found her guilty of negligent homicide with a gun for the May 27 shooting of her sister, Bao T. Tran.

Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce E. Schroeder warned the gallery of lawyers, friends and family who came to hear that verdict that emotional displays — on their faces or with their voices — would not be tolerated.

Tran’s family followed that order strictly, particularly her mother, Nhung Trinh, who checked her sobs but let her tears flow.

Jurors watched Tran and her family as the verdict was read. After the jury left the courtroom, defense attorney Valerie Karls led Tran to the gallery.

“She wants her mom,” Karls said. Tran collapsed next to her mother, who clung tightly to the Tran’s spiritual adviser, the Rev. Georgette Wonders.

Outside the courtroom, Karls said she was disappointed.

Karls and co-defense attorney Vincent Rust had hoped for an acquittal on Tran’s original charge of second-degree reckless homicide. Karls could not persuade Schroeder to exclude a lesser included charge of homicide by negligent handling of a weapon.

Jurors were instructed to only consider that negligent charge if they found Tran not guilty of reckless homicide. Given that standard, Karls and others suggested, Tran could have gone home Wednesday as a free woman had the lesser charge not been included.

Instead she went home Wednesday to await sentencing on Feb. 7; she is free on a $50,000 cash bond, which friends and professors gathered in $10, $20 and $100 increments for the recent University of Wisconsin-Parkside graduate.

Karls said she is not sure what sentence to suggest, but she said the penalty for Tran goes beyond the possible five-year prison term. As a convicted felon, Tran now faces the added penalty of deportation; Tran has been in the United States since 2002 on a student visa.

“I believe Tran will be deported,” Karls said, “which is sad because she’ll never be able to see her professors, her friends again.” Tran also has some family in the United States.

Her parents live in Vietnam. They traveled from Ho Chi Minh City and had to close their family-run hotel to be with Tran for her trial. They will not be able to stand by her at sentencing. Their visas will expire before then, Karls said.

Karls said the deportation possibility weighed into Tran’s decision to go to trial, although the defense adamantly maintains Tran was not aware of the danger of her actions when she decided to show her boyfriend’s Colt .45 replica to her sister. In fact, Karls asked Schroeder to dismiss Tran’s charge, regardless the verdict. For the defense, Bao’s death will always be an accident.

Many spectators at the trial — lawyers to laypeople — sympathized with Tran and accepted the accident explanation. Many questioned why she was even charged.

District Attorney Robert D. Zapf said he understands that. But, he said, Tran made too many purposeful choices — she reportedly sought out the gun, rooted through a drawer when she could not find it, then pointed it in her sister’s direction — to make the shooting an accident.

“This was never an accident,” Zapf said.

In fact, if Zapf had been able to prove a motive for the shooting, he said he possibly would have pressed for an intentional homicide charge, given Tran’s decision to get and manipulate the gun, added to the fact that she was sober when she made those choices.

Zapf made no prediction on what sentence he might suggest or even whether he would be more inclined to recommend a minimum or maximum sentence. However, Zapf said the shooting was one of the more aggravated negligent homicide cases he had seen and would weigh that as he made his decision.

Many who watched the trial, even those who felt Tran deserved some punishment, whispered frustrations with Tran’s boyfriend, Jacob Karras, who owned the gun used in Bao’s shooting.

Karras reportedly taught Tran how to use the gun, although the extent of those lessons varies depending on the view of the state and the defense.

Zapf argued that Tran learned enough to know how to load and fire the weapon. He said she also knew that Karras kept a loaded clip in the gun. The defense asserted that Tran thought the gun was unloaded because Karras told her it was “safe” before he put it away.

Regardless, many in the courtroom felt the shooting would not have been possible without Karras’ so-called lessons.

Zapf said he considered that when he charged Tran. He has learned that Karras is not the registered gun owner and feels that Karras, by his own testimony, either lied to police or lied on the witness stand about what he taught Tran.

But, Zapf said, Karras was not involved in the shooting and, therefore, cannot be charged with a crime.

“He could have a loaded gun. It’s foolish, but he could do it,” Zapf said. “There is no charge that, under the law, he could be charged with unless he was involved in the shooting.”

Tran and her family had nothing to say after the trial ended. Jurors also left the courthouse without comment.

Schroeder thanked them for enduring a trial that lasted twice as long as expected.

“This was an extraordinary jury,” he said. “I think I told you 3½ days and here we are in day eight. I never heard a whimper of a complaint.”

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