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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Haing Ngor murder suspects set for US trial

Haing Ngor murder suspects set for US trial

L OS ANGELES - Three men accused of murdering Oscar-winning Khmer-American actor Haing

Ngor will face trial on January 20, according to the LA District Attorney's Office.

The trial date was set during an Oct 7 pre-trial hearing, which came more than a

year and a half after the murder and subsequent arrest of Indra Lim, 19, Jason Chan,

24 and Tak Sun Tan, 20.

A trained physician, Haing Ngor survived the Khmer Rouge 1975-79 regime and made

his way to the US as a refugee in 1980. He gained international acclaim and an Oscar

for his role in the film The Killing Fields, as well as renown for his human rights

activism, anti-Khmer Rouge campaigning, business interests and membership in the


Ngor, 55, was shot dead in the car-port of his house in the China-town district of

LA on Feb 25, 1996, prompting Cambodian Second Prime Minister Hun Sen to claim Khmer

Rouge involvement in the murder.

While defense lawyers say a professional hit, even by the Khmer Rouge, cannot be

ruled out, the prosecution contends that the killing was a robbery by street gang

members gone wrong.

The three defendants potentially face the death penalty if convicted of first degree


The case was thrown into turmoil last year when two prosecution witnesses recanted

their testimony at pre-trial hearings.

In Sept 1996 prosecution witness Sarik Vireak, 25, recanted his previous testimony

that he heard a popping sound before seeing the three defendants run toward a car

he was in with an acquaintance named Timmy. Vireak said that police had fed him the

version of events he originally gave.

Another witness, Thol May, also recanted his testimony that he had seen Jason Chan

and Indra Lim with a 9mm Glock pistol - the same type of gun used in the killing

(the murder weapon was never found). May had also originally said that the two young

men had asked him to join them in a robbery they were planning.

LA Deputy District Attorney Craig Hum said in a recent interview that he believed

both witnesses recanted because they were "feeling the heat" from fellow

gang members.

"It was obvious he was intimidated... He was crying on the stand, saying, 'I'm

sorry to my homeboys'," Hum said of Thol May.

The prosecutor said he was unfazed about the loss of the witnesses' testimonies.

"What I do is basically gang cases. On almost every case witnesses recant testimony."

Hum suggested that the case might become more difficult to pursue if other witnesses

closer to the defendants recant, but claimed he remained confident of a conviction.

A key prosecution witness who remains in question is 'Timmy', aka Soeung Chroung,

who reportedly saw the three suspects around the time of the murder.

Agence France Presse has reported that Timmy told police what he had seen, but later


One defense lawyer has challenged Timmy's credibility on other grounds, intimating

that he acted to get a $25,000 reward.

"[Timmy] may or may not recant," Hum said. "We won't know until he

is on the stand. [But] we can't give up every time a witness recants. We look for

other things, evidence."

Hum claimed he found a fourth witness and other compelling evidence, including alibis

from the defendants which are "contradictory to each other and to other testimony".

Defense lawyer, however, have not been impressed by the evidence given against the

suspects so far. They filed a pre-trial motion for dismissal of the case due to a

lack of evidence, but their application was turned down by Judge DS Smith in June

this year.

Kenneth Kahn, who represented Chan at last year's pre-trial hearing before being

replaced by Public Defender Ivan Klein, lambasted the judge's decision to go forward

with the case.

"I cannot believe this case is going forward. They have squat. No forensics,

no fingerprints, no murder weapon, no witness," Kahn said.

Klein agreed that there were good grounds to have the case dismissed. Although reluctant

to outline his defense case, he rejected the pro-secutor's version of events. "Certainly,

we dispute that...[but] I don't feel comfortable trying to refute that right now

because we are not going to trial for several months."

Klein said that Khmer Rouge involvement in the killing, as alleged by Hun Sen and

members of the Cambodian-American community, cannot be ruled out, because of Haing

Ngor's activism and because the hit appeared to be professional.

Hum, the deputy prosecutor, acknowledged a "great deal of sentiment" among

the Cambodian-American community that the Khmer Rouge were involved, but he said

that there is "no question in my mind that this was not a political murder.

"Experts I know, and I don't know many, said it is unlikely Khmer Rouge would

come to LA to do a hit. They say it is not Khmer Rouge style....These three guys

were three crackheads, not the kind of guys you'd go to for a political hit.."

Hum said that the murder was simply a bungled "street robbery" committed

by drug-addicted Chinese-American gang members desperate for money to buy crack-cocaine.

"Haing Ngor drove past where these guys smoked dope. As he was getting out of

his car in his carport, they tried to rob him, panicked and shot him," Hum claimed.

The actor, with his "flashy Mercedes," just happened to be in the wrong

place at the wrong time, he said.

Haing Ngor's body was discovered inside the car. While his Rolex watch was stolen

in the attack, several thousand dollars in "contributions" remained in

the pocket of his coat in the back seat.

The actor's body was found half-in and half-out of the car, according to Hum, who

suggested that it may have been a physical obstacle that prevented them from entirely

searching the car or stealing it.

Hum asserted that the defendants are members of the "Oriental Lazy Boyz"

gang, involved in small-time thefts and robberies to obtain goods which are easy

to resell, and he suggested that they would have been unable to dispose of an expensive

stolen car.



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