SAN DIEGO — A teenage boy was convicted Tuesday of second-degree murder and attempted murder for shooting his father five times in the master bedroom of the family’s Scripps Ranch condominium last year, then firing one shot through the door of another bedroom, where his mother and half-brother had barricaded themselves.
The 16-year-old defendant was tried as a juvenile for the April 29, 2018, killing of 46-year-old Thanh “Sonny” Pham.
A dispositional hearing — the juvenile court equivalent of a sentencing hearing — is set for April 5. Under juvenile court sentencing guidelines, the boy can be held in custody until he is 25. Defense attorney Mary Ellen Attridge said she will argue that he undergo residential treatment while in custody.
Deputy District Attorney Mary Loeb said the teen ambushed his father around 8:35 p.m., using Pham’s own Glock pistol, then came “storming out of the bedroom with the gun” and began scoping the unit for his mother and half- brother, who had taken refuge inside his sibling’s bedroom. Loeb said the gun was empty after the youth fired on his father, and he had to return to the bedroom to reload so he could “continue on this rampage.”
Superior Court Judge Louis R. Hanoian rejected an argument that the killing was committed in self-defense, following years of routine physical abuse at Pham’s hands.
Hanoian also ruled that the boy tried to kill his mother, but did not convict the boy on a second attempted murder count in regard to his half- brother, as the defendant fired only a single shot through the door.
The boy, then 15, fled from the condo on foot before police arrived, but was arrested about 1 a.m. the following day, roughly two miles from his home, after someone spotted him on Scripps Poway Parkway near Interstate 15. He had the handgun in his waistband and dozens of rounds of ammunition in his backpack when taken into custody, according to police.
Attridge, as well as the boy’s family members, stated that Pham was physically abusive, particularly with the defendant.
Last week, the juvenile testified that Pham often struck him as a form of discipline, including once just minutes before the shooting, knocking him briefly unconscious. He also said that Pham once shoved his mother out of a moving vehicle.
His half-brother, Steven Nguyen, now 25, also testified that Pham was strict, and had been physically abusive with him and his mother in the past, including choking Nguyen once, and shoving his mother to the sidewalk on another occasion.
“Sonny equated love with control,” Attridge said in her closing argument, speaking to the physical abuse, cameras that Pham installed in the living room and in the boy’s bedroom, and his rigid regulation of the family’s internet use — a particular sticking point with the defendant, whose favorite pastime was video games.
“He meted out unjustifiable, excessive punishment,” the defense attorney said.
Loeb said Pham’s “corporal discipline” and strict control over the household led the boy to foster hatred toward his father, though she said none of the alleged abuse ever rose to the level of serious harm to the boy.
“We’re not here to judge Sonny Pham as a father, or as a husband, or as a man,” the prosecutor said. “We’re here to judge the actions of the minor on that night.”
“In this case, Sonny Pham has been portrayed as a violent ogre” and “a sadistic abuser,” Hanoian said, but the judge did not find that the evidence supported those depictions.
“No one has testified that they witnessed actual violence (committed upon the boy by his father),” Hanoian said.
In regard to self-defense, Hanoian ruled that the imminent threat of death or great bodily injury was needed to rule the killing lawful, but no such evidence existed in this case.
Attridge argued that the boy rightfully believed he was under the threat of injury because “he had suffered great bodily injury that evening,” alleging that Pham struck the boy just minutes before he was shot.
Hanoian said there was no evidence of an injury to indicate any such blow occurred.
When questioned by his attorney last week as to why he shot his father, the boy said: “He came at me.”
He testified that he was planning to run away from home that night, saying he would “stay on the streets for the night and protect myself with the firearm,” but was confronted by his father as he was preparing to leave.
The boy testified that he fired one shot when his father lunged at him, then the remaining shots when Pham reached for the gun.
Loeb said the boy’s claims that he was trying to run away from home didn’t make sense, as he hadn’t packed clothes, money or his cell phone in preparation to live “on the mean streets of Scripps Ranch.”
Attridge countered that the lack of preparation on the boy’s part reflected his lack of deliberation and premeditation in his father’s killing, stating “he just wanted to get away.”