Man convicted for 2nd time in 2000 freeway killing of teen

SAN DIEGO — A man was convicted Wednesday of the car-to-car shooting death of a 16-year-old boy on a San Diego freeway nearly 20 years ago, marking the second time the defendant was found guilty of murder and firearm allegations in the shooting.

Phong Huynh, 42, faces 50 years to life in state prison when he is sentenced June 14 for the Feb. 13, 2000, slaying of Nghia Tan Pham.

The defendant was previously found guilty in 2015 and sentenced to 50 years to life behind bars, but an appeals court panel overturned that conviction, leading to the retrial that began last month.

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 unsolved for more than a decade until Huynh, who was living in Montana, was identified as a suspect.

Both the prosecution and defense said Pham was killed in retaliation for a fight he was involved in at a San Diego pool hall, in which he inadvertently bumped a man with a pool cue while lining up a shot at a billiards table. The fight triggered another altercation days later at an area coffee shop, then the shooting of Pham, which occurred about a week after the pool hall fight.

Deputy District Attorney Christopher Lawson said Huynh was friends with two men injured in the fight, while Huynh’s attorney, William Nimmo, claimed his client was not present at the brawl, nor at the coffee shop. Huynh also testified that he was not involved or present at either altercation.

On the night of the shooting, Lawson said Huynh had a driver follow Pham as he drove onto the freeway, then fired on him from the front passenger seat. The prosecutor said Huynh fled to Michigan six weeks after the teen’s death.

The driver of the car had no idea Huynh was planning to kill Pham on the night of the shooting and declined to come forward for more than a dozen years out of fear, Lawson said, but eventually told authorities what happened after being overcome by guilt. Other witnesses also told police that Huynh bragged about committing the killing or threatened others that they might be next, Lawson said.

Nimmo countered that the driver and Huynh did not like each other and he would never agree to drive Huynh, as the prosecution contended.

Nimmo claimed that a pair of San Jose-area gang members were in San Diego and were on the run due to an attempted murder drive-by shooting they committed in the Bay Area. He alleged that those men lost the fight at the pool hall, and their humiliation over the altercation triggered a chain of events that led to Pham’s killing.

An appellate court panel overturned Huynh’s conviction on several factors, including that the defense was not allowed to postpone a portion of the trial in order to produce a key witness.

The three-justice panel also ruled that Huynh should have been allowed to introduce evidence that some of the prosecution’s witnesses were associated with a gang that frequented the pool hall and coffee shop. Huynh was accused of confessing to killing Pham — an associate of some of the gang’s members — at one of the suspected gang members’ homes, something his first trial lawyer characterized as “so highly improbable as to be ridiculous,” according to the court’s ruling.

The gang evidence was not allowed to be presented at trial, as it was ruled to have no bearing on 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.”

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