A teen barely old enough to buy an R-rated movie ticket was certified Thursday to stand trial as an adult for capital murder.
If convicted, Tam T. Nguyen, 17, could face the death penalty.Nguyen faces an aggravated murder charge in connection with last summer's shooting death of Chet O. Harris, whose body was found in a West Salt Lake alley. He had been shot once in the head and once in the throat.
Third District Juvenile Judge Arthur G. Christean said the seriousness of Nguyen's alleged crime justified adult proceedings. The judge reminded participants that the certification hearing was not designed to determine the defendant's guilt or innocence, but to establish the appropriate judicial forum.
"The nature of the charge is right at the top of the list, a capital offense," he said.
According to a confession investigators received from Nguyen the day after the shooting, Nguyen and a friend, Taun Ly, met Harris in the early hours of Aug. 22, 1993, near 300 S. Main. Nguyen and Harris left in the Harris' car and parked behind a nearby apartment building.
At some point, Nguyen became upset and demanded to be taken back after Harris made an unwanted sexual pass. Harris agreed, and later drove Nguyen and Ly to the alley near the Nguyen's home, the confession said.
After learning of Harris' advances, Ly allegedly told Nguyen,"We should shoot him." Nguyen then walked to his house, got a gun and shot Harris in the throat, the confession said.
The two friends then jumped into the victim's car and drove a block before returning to the alley to see if Harris was dead. Ly got out of the car and shot the wounded Harris in the head, according to the confession.
Later that day, Nguyen and Ly left in Harris' car for Seattle. Their plans were foiled when they struck a road barrier near La Grande, Ore. - disabling the vehicle. The two were later picked up by local police who thought the teens were runaways and put them on a bus for Salt Lake City.
Meanwhile, Salt Lake police detectives identified Harris' body and learned of the Oregon accident involving the victim's car. Police nabbed the boys without incident when they arrived at the downtown bus depot.
Thursday, prosecution and defense attorneys both acknowledged the circumstances surrounding Harris' death, but they disagreed on Nguyen's intent.
Defense attorney Paul Gotay said his client shot Harris in self-defense, calling the victim "a convicted felon trying to prey upon a minor."
Gotay added that if Nguyen were found guilty his rehabilitation would be best served in a juvenile facility instead of prison. Recent court-ordered psychological evaluations of the defendant, he said, suggest Nguyen has suffered a lifetime of abuse and learning disabilities that could be remedied with extended therapy.
Prosecutor Greg Warner argued a capital offense was too serious to be handled in the juvenile system and dismissed the defense's claim.
Ly, 18, has not been charged with the shooting because of insufficient admissible evidence. Should Nguyen decide to testify against Ly, however, Ly could face additional charges.