Death For Parking
In A Shrinking World Mankind Fights For Space
By P.W. Andersen
One young man is dead. Another spent more than a year in jail for a crime he did not commit. A third young man, the actual killer, will spend a significant portion of his life in prison for voluntary manslaughter, where his boyish looks and diminutive stature will likely make him a target for bigger inmates. The lives of dozens of friends and relatives of the three men have been forever altered, and some of the survivors will have to grapple with the memory that, at least in part, they could have prevented this tragic turn of events.
What led to the death of a19-year-old whose parents brought him to the U.S. as an infant, who was attending college in hopes of establishing a career and a foothold in the climb to the American dream? And what motivated his killer, who also came to the U.S. as an infant but grew up on the rough streets of the inner city? What led to the fatal clash of two groups at opposite ends of the social spectrum, resulting in shattered lives on both sides?
They fought a brief but bloody battle over a quintessentially San Franciscan piece of prized turf.
A parking space.
Most observers would immediately describe this as a “senseless killing.” But that very expression implies an opposite, that there are sensible killings, that while it makes no sense to take a life for a parking space, it certainly becomes justifiable when the prize is—what, a city block, a town, a province, a country? An oil well, access to a trade route, control of a strategic harbor? If battles must be fought over real estate (and most wars in history boil down to disputes over real estate and the resources that come with it), then where does one draw the line? At what number of square feet or square miles does the law allow a combatant to kill? For instance, the relative value of a tank of gas to an impoverished single parent may take on proportions similar to the value of a million barrels of oil to a wealthy nation. Few would do more than chuckle sympathetically if the individual’s tank of gas was siphoned and stolen, but shouts of righteous indignation would echo in the halls of the Capitol if a large supply of the nation’s oil came under threat. Would it justify a war?
The short war in San Francisco one night erupted as a fluke of happenstance, and the battlefield measured smaller than a boxing ring. But in the aftermath the cultural divide between the combatants (and between their supporters) grew as wide as the gap between capitalism and communism, between secularism and fundamentalism, between nationalism and tribalism.
I served for three months on the jury that heard this case, as Alternate #3 for the first phase and Juror #8 in the second phase of the trial. My colleagues and I listened to some 30 witnesses painstakingly detail where they were moment by moment, where other people stood and what they said or did, what spots the vehicles occupied in relation to the contested parking space, the precise angle of the fatal wound, normal police investigation procedures and how they differed from those followed in this case, and the recollections to which witnesses now testified as opposed to what they had said under oath at hearings just a few months after the incident when their memories were clearer. The three long months generated well over 6,000 pages of trial transcripts, which I have reviewed to confirm details of testimony. They tell a story of poor judgment and bad decisions, of missed opportunities to just walk away with perhaps slightly bruised egos but bodily health intact.
Boris Albinder had the world at his feet. The son of Russian immigrants, Boris had grown up in America to become a bright and athletic business student at Skyline College in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. Standing 6 feet tall and weighing in at 180 pounds—most of it muscle from his prowess as a competitive swimmer—he projected a formidable presence in any setting. But there was another side to the young man; he was well acquainted with tragedy after his younger sister died when he was 11, and his father died a year later. Boris sang with the San Francisco Boys Choir as a child and performed with a Russian dance troupe both locally and on tours to Israel, Russia and Mexico. In addition to his travels with the dance troupe, Boris had also visited Spain, Switzerland, Germany, South Africa and Canada. He worked two part-time jobs, as a swim coach for children and a lab assistant for his biology professor. But friends said Boris also
found time to volunteer at retirement homes. His high school swim coach at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in San Francisco called Boris the “most inspirational team member” during an awards dinner. Boris grew up in San Francisco’s Richmond District, a relatively well-to-do neighborhood in the northwest corner of town between Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate Bridge. In 2005 his mother and stepfather purchased a home in Pacifica, a small coastal town a few miles south of the city, so Boris began college at Skyline.
Igor Litvak, a fellow immigrant and Boris’s close friend since early childhood, studied math at the University of San Francisco and wanted to recruit Boris to join his fraternity when he transferred to USF from Skyline. Shorter and lighter than Boris but also trim and muscular, Igor won awards as a college swimmer. On the evening of September 15, 2006, Alpha Epsilon Pi, the fraternity, rented the G3 Lounge on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco’s Richmond District for a private party to recruit new pledges. Boris picked up his date for the evening, Irina Yukhtman, and drove up the Peninsula into the city to join the party. The fraternity named the theme of the party “White Trash Night,” and most of the men attending wore “wife beaters,” which Litvak described as T-shirts with no sleeves.
Sarith Soun, then 25, had seen a much different view of the world. His parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and he was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. After a brief stay in the Philippines, Soun’s family eventually found its home in a tiny apartment in San Francisco’s inner-city Tenderloin District when he was three years old. The family of his cousin, Pounloeu Chea, made their way to the same neighborhood and the boys grew up together. Prior to the tremendous influx of Southeast Asian refugee families in the early 1980s, the Tenderloin never housed many children. Made up of dozens of “residential hotels” built to accommodate seamen and longshoremen back when the city was a thriving port, the neighborhood’s design never contemplated space for anything more than sleeping, eating, and drinking, and not necessarily in that order. The walls of the Tenderloin’s boxlike buildings come smack up to the very edge of the sidewalk in front and abut each other on the sides; the neighborhood has no lawns, no front yards, no back yards, and seldom even any space between the buildings except cubbyholes for dumpsters and light wells for apartment windows. The few so-called playgrounds that have been placed in the area in the past 20 years would each barely accommodate more than a game of hopscotch, let alone baseball or the other types of games children throughout America enjoy. Soun and Chea lived most of their early lives in the very small world of the 200 and 300 blocks of Leavenworth and the 500 block of the intersecting Ellis Street. On the pavement.
On the Friday night of September 15, 2006, Chea had dropped off his live-in girlfriend, Shirley Cisneros, at a nearby hospital where she worked and then parked her pale green, almost turquoise van on the 200 block of Leavenworth, where he had grown up. Though he and Shirley had moved out to one of the residential neighborhoods of the city after she became pregnant with their first child, he still considered the Tenderloin as home and the place to hang out with friends. It was Friday night and a sitter was watching the baby—time to party. A dozen or more fellow Cambodian American men congregated around the van with Chea. Sometime later Police Officer Teresa Sangiacomo and her longtime partner, Officer Chris Muselman, saw the crowd and approached. The men dispersed and the police told Chea to move on. He started up the van and circled the block until the cops left, and then pulled up near the Comeback bar on Leavenworth to pick up his cousin Soun and three other friends, Roeung Chhith, Vansok Chil and Miguel Medina, the only non-Cambodian of the group. They drove three miles west to the Richmond District to check out the action at a bar they knew in that area. Upon arrival, Chea saw an open parking space at the curb just past the corner of Geary and Third Avenue and began to ease the van into the space.
The hour was approaching midnight, and Litvak grew worried that Albinder was going to miss the party. The agreement with the G3 Lounge called for closing the doors to block further admissions at 12:00. Litvak called on his cell phone and learned that Albinder was parking his car a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. Just at that moment a curb space in front of the G3—just west of Third Avenue—became available, and Litvak told his friend to drive over to the club immediately.
Accounts of what happened next differed sharply on key points, but here is the picture that emerged for the jury in several weeks of testimony by multiple witnesses. As Litvak was speaking to Albinder, he saw Chea and his friends pulling into the parking space. Litvak shouted into the phone for Albinder to hurry because someone was trying to take “his space,” and he crossed the sidewalk and stepped off the curb in front of Chea’s vehicle, shouting that he was reserving the space for a friend. The van had already moved into the back portion of the parking space. After forcing Chea to stop, Litvak backed a foot or two away from the van as he barked into his phone; Chea took his foot off the brake to inch forward to claim the real estate Litvak was inadvertently ceding. Chea called out from his window three or four times for Litvak to move, that the men in the van just wanted to check out something and would only stay a few minutes. At some point the van nudged Litvak’s leg at least once and possibly twice. Litvak shouted obscenities and began pounding his fist on the hood of the van, prompting Chhith and Chil to get out; at least one of them got into a shoving match with Litvak and someone hit him in the back of the head when he refused to move.
Meanwhile Albinder raced over on Geary, made a U-turn at Third and then nosed his car at a 45-degree angle into the front half of the parking space to deny the van further access. Then, seeing that the argument between his friend and the others was escalating to a physical altercation, Albinder jumped out of his car and entered the fray. Litvak told the jury that the Cambodians were “hitting like girls” and boasted that the much larger Albinder was “knocking them down two at a time.” (Litvak added that in the past his own girlfriend had hit him in the face harder than the Cambodians did that night, but defense attorneys did not bother asking why Litvak’s girlfriend would have had cause for such violence.) Soun, who was quite drunk at the time, looked out the window of the van where he sat in the back seat and saw a large man beating up his friends. Soun charged out of the van’s side door to help them.
After just a few seconds of intense fighting, the two sides pulled away from each other. Litvak wrapped his arms around Albinder’s chest from behind and pulled him back into the alcove that held the entrances to the G3 and the Ireland’s 32, an Irish bar next door in the same building. By all accounts Albinder was angrily trying to throw his friend Litvak off so Albinder could resume the fight, and Litvak was trying desperately to hold him back. A security camera in the alcove momentarily caught the image of Albinder trying forcefully to shove Litvak away. At some point he was successful and returned to the scene on the sidewalk.
Bystanders yelled that someone should call the police. The Cambodians gave up and withdrew from the fight even as Albinder attempted to continue it; he exchanged a few blows with several of them, but the five men piled back into the van and drove away. According to witnesses, the entire fight probably lasted about 30 seconds. As the van left, Albinder got back into his car and quickly parallel-parked in the disputed space in front of the G3. He commented to Yukhtman that he felt faint and might get sick. As he exited his car, he collapsed before reaching the curb. None of the witnesses ever saw a knife and no one realized Albinder had been stabbed, but now his friends could see blood on his shirt and they called for emergency medical help. An ambulance took Albinder to San Francisco General Hospital, where he died shortly afterward.
In the van that had just driven away, Soun was again sitting in the seat behind the driver. When Soun had tried to hit the large man who was beating his friends, Albinder shrugged the blow off as if it were nothing—he was five inches taller and 60 pounds heavier, so Soun’s attempt to fight was laughable. Albinder had then delivered a punch to Soun’s head that stunned him and forced him to his knees. With the larger man still looming over him and about to punch again, Soun reached into his pants, pulled out a 3½-inch pocketknife, opened it and waved it blindly over his head to fend Albinder off. At that same moment Albinder lunged down at Soun to strike another blow; the knife entered his chest, sliced through his heart at a slightly downward angle and pierced his liver. But now, sitting in the departing van, Soun remembered very little of this; he just saw blood on his knife and said out loud, “I think I just stabbed somebody.” The others in the van said nothing and rode on in silence. Soun wiped the blood off on the back of the driver’s seat as Chea drove back toward their part of town. Chea stopped at a market near the Tenderloin to pick up some beer. While they waited in the van, Soun asked one of the others to throw the knife in a trashcan outside the market.
Most people would wonder, why all this fuss over a parking space? If a spot at the curb is taken, you just move on to the next one, don’t you? And where most people live, that suggestion generally holds true. But San Francisco houses its residents at an average rate of about 17,000 people per square mile. (In comparison Chicago’s city limits contain 13,000 per square mile, while Los Angeles has 8,000. Among major American cities New York lays claim to higher density with 24,000 residents per square mile in its five boroughs.) In addition to the 17,000 people, make room for well over 10,000 vehicles. San Francisco’s 47 square miles claim 475,000 registered cars, trucks, and trailers, and another 600,000 vehicles drive into or through the city on a typical day, according to state transportation figures, bringing the total to more than a million. But there are fewer than half that many legal parking spaces, so at any given moment of any hour on any day there may be hundreds of drivers playing a massive game of musical chairs throughout San Francisco, circling blocks waiting for one legal space to open up so they can pounce on it before anyone else. Illegal parking generates an industry unto itself—the city writes thousands of tickets each day resulting in many millions of dollars in annual revenue for civic coffers. Parking control officers suffered 28 physical assaults in 2006 as they attempted to write tickets. Some homeowners earn extra income by renting garage or driveway space to motorists.
So when Litvak stepped in front of the oncoming van and held up the palm of his hand to indicate that Chea could not park there, he was not just making a casual, gentlemanly plea for friendly consideration to let his still-absent comrade use the space when he eventually arrived. No, many San Franciscans would view an action such as Litvak’s as a claim of personal ownership of scarce and precious public property. While not necessarily an act of outright aggression, it certainly requires chutzpah.
And making such an assertion of ownership to a van full of complete strangers, who turn out to be five men who grew up in the Tenderloin, might be compared to waving a bright red octagonal stop sign in front of a charging bull and expecting the animal to recognize and respect internationally accepted auto traffic rules. San Francisco as a whole has a population density that translates to slightly more than 25 people per acre, but the Tenderloin’s density is 75 per acre, according to the Census Bureau. Prostitution, drug dealing and violence plague the 35 blocks of the Tenderloin, giving it one of the highest crime rates in the city. The five men in the van grew up with a sharpened drive to jealously protect their personal space and guard against encroachment by outsiders. They would have viewed an attempt to force them out of an empty parking space—even as they already occupied part of the space—as an aggressive shot across the bow.
When Officer Sangiacomo heard the radio report of the stabbing, she recognized the van’s description and license number from her encounter with Chea less than an hour earlier. When Chea returned to Leavenworth Street and parked the van, she and her partner Muselman called for backup and moved in. The van’s other occupants scattered but the officers seized Chea, the driver of the van. Police drove Albinder’s friends into the Tenderloin to identify Chea as he was detained on the street, after which they arrested him and took him to a police station about a block away. Several hours later, an inspector interrogated Chea and accused him of murder. Chea denied any involvement in any killing and said he wasn’t even there. The police booked Chea and put him in jail on suspicion of murder, where he stayed for the next 13 months. A crime scene investigator found dried blood on the back of the van’s driver’s seat, and the DNA matched Albinder’s. Chea had a record—an undercover officer saw him sell a rock of crack cocaine back in 2001—so police were sure they had their man.
But Chea’s arrest did not complete the picture. Who were the other four men in the van, and what was the extent of their involvement? Chea wasn’t talking, but homicide inspectors Lea Militello and Kevin Jones eventually determined that Miguel Medina was present and, after extensive investigation, identified Roeung Chhith, Vansok Chil and Sarith Soun as the other three. They showed photos of the men to witnesses and got what they termed positive identifications. Two months after Albinder’s death, police arrested Soun and charged him also with murder.
Soun had seemingly tried to turn his life around but found himself backsliding. He began drinking when he was 12 years old and was a confirmed alcoholic long before he finished his teen years. He had worked several unskilled labor jobs but had no prospects for a long-term career. He had been arrested twice in early 2002, once for selling a small quantity of crack and again for violently assaulting a member of a Latino gang from an adjacent section of the Tenderloin. He was convicted and placed on probation, and the director of a local youth program took Soun under his wing. About a year before the events in question, Soun and his girlfriend went to Hawaii for six months to help the girlfriend’s sister get a business off the ground, and Soun worked on a farm there. The pair returned to San Francisco in early 2006. Soun resumed drinking heavily. On September 15 he was playing pool for drinks at the Comeback bar. Apparently he played well, because by his own count he had downed at least 10 shots of cognac and chaser beers in the hours before Chea showed up at about 11:30 p.m. An expert testified that no matter what level of tolerance for alcohol Soun had developed over the years, he was severely drunk that night.
The sharp contrast between Albinder’s and Soun’s worlds made their collision that night dangerous. The men from the Tenderloin had learned to hustle or fight for whatever they needed. The fraternity members, on the other hand, were sons of privilege who had the wherewithal to attend a private university with a steep tuition, and who were more accustomed to getting what they wanted through words and wit than brute force. (In fact, one of the fraternity officers made a point of telling the court that he recalled a valet parking sign adjacent to the disputed parking space. Later, jurors figured that if the fraternity had actually obtained valet parking privileges in the G-3’s area, the group could have made a stronger claim to the parking space. However, the prosecution let the issue drop like a bare baked potato fresh from the oven, so jurors assumed the valet parking sign was a phony. The defense did not bother to ask about it.)
Despite their apparent disdain for “White Trash,” the fraternity men would all likely have been well acquainted with the sting of discrimination. Alpha Epsilon Pi, a national fraternal organization, was founded in 1913 to provide fellowship and develop leadership among Jewish men in college. No mention of Albinder’s Jewish heritage was ever made during testimony; it was only after the trial that jurors could look up the fraternity on the Internet. (See sidebar.)
The cultural gap between the two worlds grew even wider after Albinder’s death. As should be expected, the victim’s family and friends viewed the Tenderloin men as thugs with no legitimate justification for their point of view. For instance, Irina Yukhtman, the young woman accompanying Albinder, testified that she pleaded with him not to get out of the car because she “could tell” what kind of people were in the van—the type who would start a fight over what she called “our parking space.” The jury doubted some of Yukhtman’s recollections, including this bit of retroactive prescience. For one thing, a strong argument could be made that Litvak started the fight, not the Cambodians. Also, she repeatedly insisted that the pale green van was a dark red burgundy. She seemed confused in her testimony about whether Albinder blocked the space with the nose of his car or by backing in. She also initially claimed that the men from the van tried unsuccessfully to force her own car door open. She said they banged their fists on the hood of Albinder’s car. She eventually admitted that she did not actually see these attempts to open her door or the attacks on the car (which no other witnesses saw either) but thought she could hear them. However, in the two years since Albinder’s death, Yukhtman’s hazy recollections had apparently become very real to her and Albinder’s other supporters. It seemed that the Tenderloin men became further dehumanized as bloodthirsty thugs who were just out looking for any excuse to take a man’s life and harass his blond girlfriend on a Friday night. In a written statement the Albinder family likened Boris’s killer to something of a cross between a shark and a vampire. “Sarith Soun is an animal who has tasted the (sic) human blood. He killed once—he will kill again. It is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’,” the family wrote in a request for the harshest sentence allowable.
This is not to suggest that the Tenderloin men were angels—far from it. As previously noted, Soun and Chea had both been convicted of crimes earlier in the decade. In an attempt to portray them as members of a criminal street gang, the prosecution placed a large poster at the front of the courtroom with photographs of the defendants and 15 other men from the neighborhood whom they knew personally. All but one of the men in the pictures were dressed in prison orange. Their individual crimes spread over a decade, ranging from drug possession to felony assault. The prosecution also introduced photographs of the 15 men in social situations, sometimes with the defendants, in which they made hand signals of letters of the alphabet that the prosecutor said corroborated Tenderloin graffiti names of the gang, which had been scrawled on walls and sidewalks. However, the prosecutor could not identify a single name but rather at least six or seven for the alleged gang. Many of the hand signals were TL for Tenderloin, which was, after all, where they grew up together. Some were TLC, which stood for either Tenderloin Cambodians or Tenderloin Crips. TCC allegedly meant Tenderloin Cambodian Crips, and CC just dropped the neighborhood identifier. Another alleged name was CWA, for Cambodians With Attitude, but the group might also be known as the Eddy Street Crips or the TL Mob. With more than a half dozen different names for the alleged gang, members of the jury scratched their heads wondering how this group could represent “organized crime.”
Several police officers who had patrolled the Tenderloin for upwards of 10 years said they had seen the defendants and the other 15 men quite often but could not testify to actually seeing them together. They did not know where the men had grown up. A police expert on gangs concluded that the group constituted a gang based on his reading of their records, but he displayed little or no knowledge of the gang or its alleged members. None of the officers testified to having seen who wrote the supposedly gang-related graffiti in the neighborhood.
The claim that the men constituted a gang was further weakened by the fact that they did not seem to have a recognized leader, nor any identifying logo or “colors.” No testimony suggested they robbed or extorted money from local businesses. A police narcotics officer with 18 years on the force testified that Latinos or African Americans sold most of the illegal drugs in the Cambodians’ neighborhood, and that it was very rare for an Asian to sell narcotics there. No witnesses mentioned the Cambodians owning cars, motorcycles or even skateboards. (The green van belonged to Shirley Cisneros’s family, not Chea.) So the alleged gang had no leader, no name, no uniform, no wheels, no control of the local drug trade, no visible means of group income, and no organized activities other than occasionally hanging out together and flashing hand signals for the camera.
Just as some national figures in recent years have claimed that any foreign group that opposes U.S. policies does so simply because “they hate freedom,” the attempt to paint Soun and his friends as a criminal organization relied more on caricature than actual character. During deliberations one juror said to the rest of us, “This ain’t no gang. Come to my part of town and I’ll show you some gangs.”
But the characterization of Chea and Soun as hardened gang members was crucial to the prosecution because it could add 10 years to Soun’s sentence. A conviction of a proven gang member would also provide a bonus for District Attorney Kamala Harris, who was planning a statewide run for Attorney General. So in the two years from the night of the fight to the beginning of the trial, the gang image was planted, nurtured and solidified in the minds of Albinder’s survivors. By the time they got on the witness stand, they had reduced the Tenderloin men to mindless murderers with no normal human values. Albinder’s family said they believed Soun killed Boris only so that he could achieve higher status among his fellow gang members, clearly a case of first degree or, at worst, second degree murder.
In the end, however, the jury convicted Soun of voluntary manslaughter, finding that no evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he stabbed Albinder intentionally. Chea had been charged with felony assault for hitting Litvak with his van, but the jury reduced it to misdemeanor assault and Chea received credit for time already served. We exempted Soun from the added charge of killing to further the interests of a criminal street gang. Albinder’s stepfather confronted us in the hall outside the courtroom and shouted that we should be ashamed of ourselves. The following month, however, the judge sentenced Soun to 12 years, the maximum.
Boris Albinder did not deserve to die. In a tragic turn of events, he arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time. He could have parked his car on Fifth Avenue, as he was doing when his friend called, and walked the two short blocks to the G3 in almost the same amount of time it took to drive over.
Igor Litvak did not deserve to be placed in the position of inadvertently contributing to his friend’s death. He could have let Boris park on Fifth Avenue but on a whim of the moment suggested racing for the spot on Geary.
Pounloeu Chea did not deserve to be charged with a murder he didn’t commit and spend 13 months in jail. When Litvak refused to give up the parking place, Chea could have backed up the van and scouted the neighborhood for another.
Sarith Soun, despite his many faults, did not deserve to be in a position where he felt the need to reach into his pocket for the “nuclear option”—his knife. If he really felt he had to insert himself into the fight against a larger man, he could have just taken his lumps and learned a valuable lesson.
All four of these men thought they were in the right, that they were protecting their friends. All four could have walked away. All four could be continuing their normal lives today if they had stopped for just a moment to think rationally before lashing out.
Do we, as a nation, rush to retaliate for perceived wrongs before investigating and considering alternatives? Do we leap to violently defend our allies before examining both sides of the issue? When a tragedy occurs, do we demonize the parties on the other side as mindless thugs with no justifiable point of view in order to rationalize our relentless “war on terror”?
Boris Albinder, Igor Litvak, Pounloeu Chea and Sarith Soun can teach us a lot about international relations.
3 Months With The Jury: Read Nothing,
Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing
Jury duty in a long trial centers first and foremost on the Admonition. Even during jury selection, and certainly during the trial itself, the judge recites the Admonition to the jury pool and later the selected jurors before releasing them for every single lunch break, coffee break, and restroom break. Before recessing at the end of the day, the judge gives special emphasis to every key syllable of the Admonition which, paraphrased, goes like this:
You will not discuss this case with anyone outside the courtroom, including each other. If anyone approaches you and attempts to discuss the case, you will walk away and report the incident to the court clerk. You will not form any opinions about this case until testimony has been completed and I give you my final instructions. You will not visit the crime scene. If you happen to drive past the crime scene or any of the places described in this trial, you will drive on and not stop. If you see any articles about this case in newspapers or other media, you will not read, view or listen to them. You will not research or read anything related to this case on the Internet.
During jury selection some of the excuses the pool members offered to escape selection caused amusement. There were those who claimed to not understand English, though they seemed to have little difficulty responding to the attorneys’ or judge’s questions. Others said they could not bear the stress of considering evidence regarding violence, but few doubted that most of these delicate blossoms have waited in line for movies involving intrigue, betrayal, murder and mayhem. One woman said she could never find the murder defendant guilty of any crime, because of his small size and boyish looks.
In the trial of Sarith Soun and Pounloeu Chea, jury selection began before Halloween 2008 and continued for three weeks. Just prior to Thanksgiving the attorneys for the prosecution and defense finally agreed on 18—12 jurors “in the box” and six alternates.
Both sides in the trial boasted some major firepower in legal representation.
Harry Dorfman, who prosecuted the case against Soun and Chea, started work as an assistant district attorney in San Francisco in 1985. He has tried a wide variety of cases and has managed teams of lawyers handling crimes ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. He took a one-year leave of absence in 1999 to serve as chief counsel for the state Assembly Committee on Public Safety, offering analysis and advice on all criminal justice legislation. Dorfman has tried homicide cases exclusively since 2003. In court he focuses on the matters at hand and seldom if ever offers any levity to the proceedings. In a letter to a legal newspaper in April 2008, Dorfman’s boss, District Attorney Kamala Harris, boasted of a 78 percent conviction rate for felonies that went to trial in San Francisco. Dorfman ran an unsuccessful campaign for Superior Court Judge in 2010.
Very few public defenders have to face voters in a general election to get and keep their jobs, and only one in California’s 58 counties must do so. Jeff Adachi has held that distinction since his first victory at the polls in 2002. A highly successful veteran of more than 100 jury trials, he carries himself like a politician in the courtroom as much as he would on the campaign trail. A natty dresser with an expressive face and dramatic style, Adachi may occasionally raise his voice to repeat and emphasize a witness’s remark or use exaggerated gestures and body motions to demonstrate for the court how an action at the crime scene might have occurred. The sense of theatrics extends to his personal life as well; he wrote and directed a documentary film entitled, “The Slanted Screen,” a PBS production about stereotypes that hound Asian American actors. (Adachi is a Japanese American.) He was also featured in “Presumed Guilty,” a PBS
special about public defenders. Though he had more than 90 attorneys in his office, Adachi chose to personally defend Chea against charges of felony assault and accessory after the fact to murder. Adachi has been rumored as a possible candidate for mayor in 2011.
Court-appointed attorney Mark Rosenbush defended Soun against murder charges. He has practiced law for more than 30 years, more often in federal than state courts. He has appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court. In contrast to Adachi, Rosenbush tends to be quieter but more aggressive in his questioning of witnesses. For instance, one of the police inspectors, under intense cross-examination, grew visibly and audibly frustrated with Rosenbush as she was forced to explain shortcomings in the investigation of this case. (Police had failed to seize the surveillance tape timely from the security camera, which, according to the G3 Lounge’s owner, showed Boris Albinder forcefully pushing Igor Litvak away before returning to fight the Cambodians. Also, in setting up yellow tape to preserve the crime scene, police failed to keep the crowd off areas of the sidewalk where blood might have dripped, which would have given evidence of where the fatal stabbing occurred. As it was, jurors had only Soun’s word of his clash with Albinder because no witnesses saw a knife and none knew for certain when and where the two men exchanged blows.) Rosenbush tends to remain cautious around the press, questioning whether news coverage will offer any benefit to his client. He assumes there will be no benefit and therefore prefers to offer no comment.
The judge’s Admonition sheltered us jurors from a lot of noise and soap operas surrounding the case for more than three months. As some of us learned from news on the Internet after the final verdict, the soap operas could have provided grist for plenty of gossip and speculation. For instance, Shirley Cisneros, Chea’s erstwhile live-in girlfriend and mother of his two children, apparently learned before the start of the trial that Chea had carried on a year-long love affair with Megan Jordan, then Adachi’s paralegal and assistant on the case. According to Law.com, a legal news Web site, Cisneros allegedly attacked Jordan violently and Chea punched Cisneros to make her leave Jordan alone. The Web site reported Cisneros was charged with vandalism, assault, battery and threats; Chea was charged with domestic violence and assault. However, the judge refused to allow Dorfman to present this information in the trial.
Perhaps of more concern, the judge granted Dorfman’s request to withhold from the jury that the D.A. had also indicted Vansok Chil and Roeung Chhith for Albinder’s death in June 2007. This information might have led the jury to question the strength of the prosecution’s case against Soun. Aside from the potentially damaging news, the Admonition also kept jurors from learning that Chea had been featured in a short PBS documentary entitled, “Who I Became,” long before the night of Albinder’s death. The film focused on Chea’s attempt to escape the street life of the Tenderloin; he needed to stay out of trouble to avoid deportation to Cambodia.
Jurors were also warned to set aside their personal knowledge of events or places connected to the case. In the second phase of the trial, which examined whether the manslaughter was committed in association with or for the benefit of a criminal street gang, Juror #8 found that he strongly disagreed with a police gang expert’s description of an area close to where the so-called gang operated, according to trial transcripts. He told the judge that he had walked that particular area very often for years and gave several examples where the expert’s testimony differed sharply from his own recollection. After he told the judge that the discrepancies would make it difficult for him to judge the case fairly, he was dismissed. As a result I was elevated from Alternate #3 to the eighth juror’s seat “in the box.”
The transcripts revealed another tidbit that was hidden from us. Dorfman received a jury summons and had to ask the judge to get him excused from it. If we had known, we might have been tempted to jokingly write letters calling for the prosecutor to share our fate.
We got each Friday off from the trial and could spend that day at our regular jobs, trying to catch up with the week’s work. Mondays through Thursdays we would arrive at the Hall of Justice at 8:30 or 9, take off our belts and empty our pockets before going through the metal detector and, when the alarm went off anyway, patiently pull up our pant legs to show the sheriff’s deputy that we were not concealing any weapons. Then we’d ride up the elevator, sit on hard wooden benches outside in the hallway while the attorneys argued various motions before the judge, read lots of books, play video games on handheld devices, discuss the weather, file into the courtroom when called, and then sit down and shut up.
Occasionally we might bristle internally when a witness made a statement that stood out in sharp contrast to what other witnesses had said, but we could not ask for clarification or follow-up. Occasionally, when a witness seemed to be completely off the mark, we would studiously avoid making eye contact with each other lest we break out into ear-to-ear grins or chuckle out loud in court. Loners usually ate lunch by themselves, but sometimes we would all get together at a restaurant within walking distance. On one such occasion I got nervous because the other jurors were laughing about some tension that had come up in court that morning. There were police and attorneys seated at tables near us and I was afraid we were close to breaching the Admonition. Who knew what the judge might do to us if someone tattled?
We found it a relief to finally go into the jury room after three months to compare notes and discuss the case. How reassuring to learn that the others had noted the same discrepancies as yourself. We needed to talk out some issues that caused discomfort, and we had to leave some of the issues on the table overnight to let them settle in our hearts and minds. Because a unanimous vote is required in cases like this, we did not pressure any juror who hesitated on any key point. In the end we reached consensus amicably.
Much like classmates who promise to keep in touch after graduation, we jurors exchanged email addresses and vowed to reunite for a big luncheon within a few weeks. But just like former classmates, our few weeks turned into months, and eventually we lost contact with most of our courtroom comrades. One juror was laid off from his job right after the trial, and others had to work overtime to get up to speed at their places of business. We set up an online conference space but nobody bothered posting any messages after the first several weeks.
Ah well, perhaps we’ll set up a 10-Year Reunion Committee someday. Though, come to think of it, I never went to my high school reunion either.
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Because of people like you, the crime rate in SF is so high. May be, if you did not let Chea go free in 2010, his brother would’ve been alive today. It takes a certain type of person to hit somebody with a car; it’s a criminal type. Too bad that people like you don’t see it or don’t want to see it, and now another young man is dead.
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