Fifteen-year-old Dang Nguyen calmly told a New Orleans jury Wednesday how he huddled in fear with another worker behind a meat counter of he family-owned T & S Discount grocery store after they heard a volley of gunfire that ended with the death of his 18-year-old cousin Hai Nguyen in what police say was a botched robbery attempt June 24, 1996.
Chris Leonard, 24, charged with first-degree murder in Hai Nguyen's death, said that he was also trying to save his own life when he entered the popular Central City grocery that day.
Jurors at the Criminal District Courthouse heard a taped statement Leonard gave to investigators shortly after his ar- rest the day of the shooting. Leonard told detectives he was being chased by a group of gunmen near Dryades and Fourth streets when he ran into the store, seeking refuge. One of the gunmen was right on his heels, he said. Only days before, the same men had beaten him with a baseball bat, sending him to Charity Hospital for his injuries, he said.
"I didn't think he would follow me into the store," Leonard said in the 40-minute taped statement. "I was running; running for my life."
Although Leonard said he didn't have a gun and couldn't have killed Hai Nguyen, Tan Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who has owned the Baronne Street store with his wife for five years, testified Leonard calmly walked into the store that day, waited for about four other customers to leave, approached the counter, pulled a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol and ordered the store owner to hand over his money.
Tan Nguyen told the jury he immediately fell to the floor and grabbed Hai Nguyen to follow him. But he said it was too late His nephew was shot in the right temple before Nguyen grabbed his 9 mm from behind the counter and fired off a shot to scare Leonard away, the store owner said. After that weapon jammed, Tan Nguyen said, he grabbed an other gun — a .38-caliber hand gun — and fired off shots at the ceiling again.
But Leonard's court-appointed defense attorneys said Hai Nguyen's shooting was a result of tragic, not intentional circumstances. They said Leon ard's gun went off only after Tan Nguyen fired at Leonard.
In his statement to police, Leonard denied having a gun But defense attorneys said Leon ard was running scared. A New Orleans patrolman said he saw Leonard running, holding something to his waist, only blocks from the scene. At one point, he bent over, as if to drop some thing, the police officer testified At that location, policemen later found a 9 mm gun whose ballistics tests matched the gun fired 9 at the grocery store, a police ballistics expert testified.
The officer who arrested Leonard testified he was responding to a report of gunshots in the area. The shots were reported before the robbery call went out, the officer testified. Jeff Smith, Leonard's defense attorney, said the report of gunfire before the robbery were the shots fired by Leonard's assailants.
While the jury was not in the courtroom, Smith asked District Judge Calvin Johnson for a mistrial after discovering prosecutors had spoken to a woman who reported shots fired in the area around the time of the robbery. Smith said the woman's account could corroborate his client's story. Smith said he was also angry that the state did not tell him about an additional witness, Thuy Nguyen, who was not named in the initial police report. Thuy Nguyen said she didn't come forward at first because she feared for her safety.
"I'm asking for a fair chance. All I'm asking is for this trial to start anew because this information could have helped clear my client," Smith told the judge.
Johnson denied the mistrial motion but lashed out Assistant District Attorney Wynne Eikel for not disclosing the information to the court before defense investigators independently discovered the woman's contact with police and prosecutors
"It was important," Johnson told Eikel. He ordered the woman subpoenaed.
Eikel told the judge the woman was interviewed Tuesday and the information would have been damaging, not helpful for the defense. Eikel said the woman's porch still bore a bullet hole from the incident.
"She said she saw a man standing on the corner. He then pointed a gun at her and began to shoot," told the judge.
Testimony in the case resumes today.
The Times-Picayune, Thursday February 11, 1999
By Rhonda Bell, Staff writer
Suspect on trial in death at store
Bullets match weapon found