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
"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
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