The accusing words of his former lover and alleged killing partner, along with blunt testimony from a self-described hired gun about an offer to do a hit job, weren’t enough for an Orleans Parish jury to convict a New Orleans man of murder, conspiracy or solicitation in the 2013 execution-style slaying of Lien Nguyen in New Orleans East.
The Criminal District Court jury of six men and six women did, however, convict 37-year-old Khoi Hoang late Monday on an obstruction count, while deadlocking on the first three charges after deliberating for about six hours.
The obstruction count, coming in a murder case, carries a maximum sentence of 40 years, with no minimum under state law. Ad hoc Judge Walter Rothschild set a Nov. 16 sentencing date.
The verdict arrived shortly after 10 p.m. following a three-day trial of Hoang for the killing of Nguyen, a 40-year-old Kenner store owner, in April 2013. A witness found Nguyen dying in a pool of his own blood in a remote wooded area in New Orleans East after he’d been tied up and stuffed in the back of a vehicle, prosecutors said.
Video evidence and witness testimony suggested that an unidentified black man pulled the trigger, but authorities accused Hoang and the victim’s wife, Charity Nguyen, of setting it up together, looking to dispose of Lien Nguyen so they could start a life together.
A witness who came across a dying Lien Nguyen, shot in the face and back, called 911 and told authorities that Nguyen repeated “wife” through gurgling last breaths when asked who had shot him.
Charity Nguyen, 38, still faces a murder charge and other counts. She was due to stand trial with Hoang before she laid the blame last week on her co-defendant, in the latest of several shifting stories. Her new allegations led the judge to split the two defendants on the eve of trial.
She claimed on the witness stand that Hoang had told her by phone that he planned to kill Lien Nguyen, then said in a later call that he had “finished” her husband. She also testified that her husband and the father of their three children physically and mentally tortured her and that her later sexual relationship with Hoang was carried on under threat.
Assistant District Attorney Brittany Reed derided the split of the defendants into two trials, calling it opportunistic “lawyer work,” and she described Charity Nguyen’s testimony as an acting job aimed at setting up a later plea deal.
“That performance? That was for us. We don’t want it, though,” Reed told the jury. “It’s not just one person that rides alone. It’s both of them. Absolutely both of them.”
But the jury couldn’t decide on Hoang’s guilt in the killing or in a plot to pay for the murder. The obstruction count stemmed from allegations that Hoang removed the license plate of a vehicle allegedly used in the killing and tinkered with surveillance video gear.
At the heart of the state’s case were the words of Joseph Hoang, an admitted gunman and drug seller who described himself as Lien Nguyen’s best friend going back to their childhood as Vietnamese refugees.
Joseph Hoang testified that Khoi Hoang, who is no relation, and Charity Nguyen both came to him in early 2013 with pleas to snuff out Lien Nguyen, promising him $10,000 and a pound of marijuana.
He said Khoi Hoang offered him a handgun wrapped in black tape in a meeting three weeks before Lien Nguyen’s slaying — one of four appeals he said the couple made at eateries from Chalmette to Metairie.
Joseph Hoang said he reacted angrily to the requests but never told his friend, fearing Lien Nguyen would kill his wife.
Khoi Hoang never took the witness stand. His attorney, Kevin Boshea, suggested that police didn’t look hard enough at Joseph Hoang as a possible suspect in the killing.
“If I knew my buddy’s wife was going to kill him, would I sit back and do nothing? Not do a single thing? Just let him get killed? Does that make any sense?” Boshea asked the jury during his closing argument.
Seeking to plant reasonable doubt in the jury’s minds, apparently with success, Boshea also noted a lack of any DNA, fingerprints or other physical evidence tying his client to the killing. A few hours into its deliberations, the jury returned to the courtroom with a question regarding the nature of circumstantial evidence.
During the trial, Reed and fellow prosecutor Jason Napoli pointed to jail phone calls between the two defendants, as well as payments from Charity Nguyen’s sister, Cyndi Nguyen, into Khoi Hoang’s jail kitty, aiming to refute her claims that Khoi Hoang held her in fear after her husband’s murder.
A witness also testified that he saw the pair kissing a day after the slaying, at the Food Express store that Lien Nguyen owned. At the time, the witness said, Charity Nguyen identified Khoi Hoang as her cousin. The two defendants were arrested together.
“Let’s stop pretending, acting like these two weren’t lovers,” Reed argued. “This is about money. This is about lust. I don’t even want to call it love.”
Before the trial, Khoi Hoang rejected an offer from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to plead guilty in exchange for a 40-year prison sentence.
Charity Nguyen, now pregnant, remains free on bond as she awaits her own trial on murder, conspiracy and obstruction charges.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.