SAN DIEGO — A man was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison Friday for the car-to-car shooting death of a 16-year-old boy on a San Diego freeway nearly 20 years ago — the second time the defendant has been sentenced for the killing.
Phong Huynh, 42, was convicted in May of murder and firearm allegations for the Feb. 13, 2000, slaying of Nghia Tan Pham. Huynh was previously convicted of the killing in 2015 and sentenced to 50 years to life behind bars, but an appeals court panel overturned that conviction, leading to this year’s retrial.
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.
On the night of the shooting, Lawson said Huynh had a driver follow Pham as the victim 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 in the first place, 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.
At Friday’s sentencing, Nimmo requested that San Diego County Superior Court Judge Amalia L. Meza strike a 25-years-to-life gun enhancement due to Huynh’s age at the time of the offense, his lack of criminal history between the shooting and his arrest, and that the gun enhancement served little purpose and doled out unnecessary punishment when other homicidal methods such as strangulation would be far more tormenting for a victim.
Deputy District Attorney Christopher Lawson called the shooting “an assassination” that he described as “cold-blooded,” “calculated,” “pointless” and “senseless,” and said Huynh displayed “a total lack of remorse” throughout the case.
Meza declined to strike the enhancement, citing the terror and fear the killing caused throughout San Diego’s Vietnamese community.
An appellate court panel overturned Huynh’s 2015 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.”