Man Gets 25 Years to Life for Teen’s 2000 Shooting Death on San Diego Freeway

Man Gets 25 Years to Life for Teen’s 2000 Shooting Death on San Diego Freeway

A San Diego Harbor Police officer helps to secure a crime scene in San Diego, in a file photo. (John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

City News Service

City News Service

5/15/2024

Updated: 5/15/2024

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SAN DIEGO—A man convicted twice of fatally shooting a 16-year-old boy on a San Diego freeway nearly 25 years ago was sentenced May 14 to 25 years to life in state prison.
Phong Huynh, 47, was convicted in two separate jury trials in 2015 and 2019 of first-degree murder for the Feb. 13, 2000, car-to-car shooting of Nghia Tan Pham. Mr. Huynh was sentenced each time to 50 years to life in state prison, but appellate courts overturned both convictions.
Instead of a third trial, Mr. Huynh pleaded guilty earlier this year to second-degree murder and an allegation of using a gun in the killing.
Pham was struck in the head by one of about a half-dozen shots fired at the car he was driving on southbound Interstate 15, north of state Route 52.
The case went cold and Mr. Huynh, who was 23 years old at the time of Pham’s death, was not arrested until more than a decade later.
Prosecutors alleged Pham was killed in retaliation for a fight he was involved in at a San Diego pool hall, where he inadvertently bumped a man with a pool cue while lining up a shot at a billiards table. The fight, which involved some friends and associates of the defendant, triggered another altercation days later at a coffee shop, then the shooting of Pham, which occurred about a week after the pool hall fight.
At Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, Mr. Huynh apologized to a handful of the victim’s family members in attendance, saying he made “a horrible choice” and committed “an evil act.”
After his first conviction, California’s 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that Mr. Huynh should have been allowed to introduce evidence at trial that some of the prosecution’s witnesses were associated with a gang that frequented the pool hall and coffee shop. The gang evidence was not allowed to be presented at trial, as it was ruled to have no bearing on Mr. Huynh’s alleged motive, but the appellate court ruled that its introduction would have allowed for “a materially different understanding of the relationships between the relevant individuals.”
In Mr. Huynh’s second appeal, his attorney argued the jury was improperly allowed to hear evidence suggesting that Mr. Huynh was a member of, or associated with a gang.
The appellate court said Mr. Huynh was associated with a group called Thien Dang, though no evidence was presented that it was a gang, but rather “a place or group of Vietnamese men who gathered to socialize and drink.”
Mr. Huynh was also not charged with any gang allegations, according to the appellate court panel, which wrote that the gang evidence was “inflammatory by implying to the jury that defendant had a disposition or character for using overwhelming violence in retaliation for disrespect, with no foundational support.”
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