Tam Nguyen, who once faced the death penalty for killing an Ogden man, now could get no more than 15 years in prison.
A jury found the Vietnamese immigrant guilty of manslaughter Friday instead of capital murder in the death of Chet O. Harris two years ago. The slight 18-year-old smiled briefly after hearing the verdict.Harris was shot in the forehead Aug. 18, 1993, as he crawled on his hands in a Salt Lake alley. He was trying to escape Nguyen, who had already shot him once in the throat. The bullet grazed Harris' spine, paralyzing him from the chest down.
Despite the execution-like slaying, jury members couldn't believe the boy was "in his right mind" when he fired the first bullet, they said.
Nguyen, who was 16 at the time, told police Harris made sexual advances toward him earlier in the evening that frightened him. Defense attorneys focused on that statement repeatedly throughout the five-day trial, referring to the advance as an "attack" and "molestation" of an unsuspecting juvenile.
"This child was raped," attorney Paul Gotay told the jury during opening state-ments.
The jury apparently believed the advance, which consisted of Harris grabbing the teenager's genitals, was in fact extraordinarily menacing to Nguyen.
"He (Nguyen) felt threatened and then he just reacted . . . he didn't intend to murder anyone when he went out that night," said foreman Cindy Venz.
The incident began about 1 a.m. after a friend of Nguyen dropped him and another friend, Taun Ly, near downtown. The pair eventually linked up with Harris at 300 S. Main, where Harris offered to take Nguyen home.
Instead, Nguyen told police, Harris took him to the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex and touched him, saying, "I want your body." The boy said he refused Harris' advances and told him to return him to his friend Ly, who was still downtown.
Harris obliged, picked up Ly, then drove to 320 S. Jeremy St. (840 West) and waited in the car while Nguyen went to his home near the alley, according to Nguyen's statement.
Nguyen and Ly had discussed Harris' advances in Vietnamese as they traveled to Jeremy Street and agreed to shoot the man. Nguyen said he grabbed his gun from the roof of his home, returned to the car and then fired into Harris' chest.
The two then grabbed Harris' car keys as they fell from his hand, jumped in his car and drove away, only to return a few moments later to find Harris inching along the alley.
As they approached and saw that Harris was still alive, "Ly said, `Give me the gun.' And then he just went up to him and shot him in the head," Nguyen told police. The pair then took Harris' white Subaru and drove to La Grande, Ore., where they were arrested after wrecking the car.
Prosecutors contended the duo planned to rob Harris all along and knew him before they met him down-town.
Salt Lake Deputy District Attorney Paul Parker said Nguyen deserved the death penalty because he was as guilty under the law as was Ly. Prosecutors did not charge Ly because of lack of evidence and Nguyen's refusal to testify.
"When the defendant handed Ly the gun, it was as though the gun was in the defendant's hand. Think of the whole vision of Chet crawling on his hands in that dark alley in Salt Lake City . . . he literally had to look up into the face of the person who killed him," Parker said in his closing argument.
Nguyen was also found guilty of theft, a second-degree felony. He faces one to 15 years in prison on each count. Third District Judge Kenneth Rigtrup can decide whether to make the terms concurrent or consecutive. Sentencing is set for Tuesday.