For more than 20 years, Chau Vu has tried to move past the night that her sister, her brother and a cop who used to guard her family’s Vietnamese restaurant were gunned down while she hid in a walk-in cooler.
Now she may have to relive the nightmare all over again.
On Thursday, Vu learned that Rogers LaCaze, who is on death row for his role in the March 4, 1995, killings, has been granted a new trial. Retired state Judge Michael Kirby ruled that one of the jurors who convicted LaCaze was a commissioned law enforcement officer at a time when it was illegal for him to serve on a jury.
The judge’s decision means Vu might have to return to a courtroom and testify about the night police say LaCaze helped NOPD Officer Antoinette Frank gun down fellow Officer Ronald “Ronnie” Williams II; Chau’s sister, Ha Vu; and her brother, Cuong Vu, during a robbery at Kim Anh restaurant in New Orleans East. That reality shook her all over again, she said during a conversation at the restaurant’s new location in Harahan.
“I want to close the book and open a new chapter in my life, just close the book,” Chau Vu said. Thursday’s ruling “brings back all my anger and everything.”
On the night of one of New Orleans’ most infamous massacres, Chau Vu, who was 23 at the time, escaped being killed by hiding in Kim Anh’s walk-in cooler with another of her brothers, Quoc Vu, and a restaurant worker.
After police arrested the 18-year-old LaCaze and 23-year-old Frank for capital murder, Chau Vu testified that the pair of defendants had worked together as accomplices.
Separate juries convicted LaCaze and Frank within months of the triple murder, sentencing them to death. But, after exhausting his appeals, LaCaze pursued what is known as post-conviction relief.
While attorneys with the Capital Appeals Project helped LaCaze argue for years that he was deserving of a new trial, Chau Vu lived her life as best she could. She got married. She had children. She and her family reopened the restaurant twice: after the murders and after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, at which point they relocated it to Harahan.
Yet Chau Vu could never shake what she saw and heard the night her siblings and Williams were slain, she said. She didn’t realize how far away she was from achieving that until Quoc Vu sent her a text message on Thursday afternoon informing her about LaCaze’s new trial.
“It just really, really upset me,” Chau Vu said about Kirby’s ruling. “It’s just something already wrapped up and finished, and he’s supposed to serve his (punishment).
“Is there (anything) left for them to talk about?”
Equally bothered by Kirby’s ruling was Williams’ father, Ron, who lambasted the post-conviction setting that produced the order for LaCaze’s new trial.
Williams, 73, said the appellate process following LaCaze’s death sentence was painstakingly exhaustive but ultimately fruitless for the accused killer. It is “absurd” there was yet another lengthy appeals phase in which LaCaze did prevail, said Williams, who has been a constant presence in all the courtrooms where the case has been heard.
“There has been no information that I’ve heard during the proceedings that suggests (LaCaze and Frank) didn’t do it,” said Williams, whose son left behind a wife and two boys.
Calling Ronnie’s murder “by far the worst experience” of his life, Williams added that he had never been more frustrated with the criminal justice system than he was Thursday.
“Crime is going to keep ... getting worse unless the criminals are made to answer for their crimes,” Williams said. “We don’t have that now.”