SANTA ANA – A judge declined Tuesday to dismiss murder charges against two women accused in a beating death outside a Santa Ana nightclub, moving the case toward a May 5 trial.
Defense attorneys for Vanesa Zavala and Candace Brito asked the judge to throw the case out because Santa Ana police delayed turning over evidence that was favorable to the defense.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said he believed police had some evidence in late January that they failed to turn over until after a preliminary hearing in February.
But Goethals said his review of the additional evidence shows it would not have changed the outcome of that hearing, at which a different judge ruled there was probable cause to send the case to trial.
Brito, 27, and Zavala, 25, both of Santa Ana, are charged with killing Annie Kim Pham, 23, who died after a Jan. 18 fight outside The Crosby, a Santa Ana restaurant and bar. Witnesses have said the fight began after Pham and another woman bumped into each other.
Brito’s lawyer, Michael Molfetta, and Zavala’s lawyer, Kenneth Reed, said Tuesday’s ruling was expected because there’s a very low standard of proof at a preliminary hearing, making it hard to overturn the result.
At trial, the standard of proof is much higher: Prosecutors must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial in May is expected to last two or three weeks.
Defense lawyers have argued that Pham, who lived in Huntington Beach, threw the first punch and their clients acted in self-defense. But prosecutors have said Brito and Zavala kicked Pham in the head while she was down, making them guilty of murder even if Pham was the initial aggressor.
Among the evidence the defense said police didn’t turn over before the preliminary hearing was a statement from Alfonso Magana, the boyfriend of a woman in Brito and Zavala’s group that night. Magana told police he was attacked by Asian gang members in Pham’s group and that Pham attacked a friend of Brito and Zavala.
Deputy District Attorney Mark Sacks, who argued in court the evidence was not “material,” said afterward the judge made the correct ruling. His colleague, Deputy District Attorney Troy Pino, said in a court filing that he was not aware of the additional evidence until police gave it to him, at which time he turned it over to the defense.
Goethals said there was technically not a constitutional violation because the evidence was not material. But he reminded prosecutors that evidence should be turned over as soon as they or police have it.
Santa Ana police also didn’t tell the defense for weeks that a detective had posed as an inmate to get statements from Zavala. The defense lawyers said they know that only because Zavala recognized Detective Patricia Navarro in court during February’s preliminary hearing and tapped her lawyer on the shoulder.
Defense lawyers also said Detective Leo Rodriguez, the lead investigator, lied on the stand when he said Zavala hadn’t claimed self-defense.
“If you testify to something that’s not the truth, you’re lying,” Reed said. “If you testify to half the truth, you’re half-lying.”
Goethals said the judge who found probable cause to send the case to trial, Thomas Borris, clearly had been put on notice of self-defense claims.
Goethals pointed to four pieces of evidence Borris heard about: statements from two witnesses that Pham was an aggressor, videotapes showing parts of the fight and a stipulation that Zavala told Navarro, “She hit me first; I acted in self-defense.”
The judge said he had watched the same videos, including cellphone footage, at least five times and found it hard to determine what was happening at many points.
“It is a chaotic situation involving events that might be described as something of a melee,” Goethals said.
In a few weeks, a jury will likely have to watch the same footage before determining whether Brito and Zavala are innocent or guilty.
By ERIC HARTLEY / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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