Yet Another Controversy over Alleged Murderer’s Competency to Stand Trial; Soon-to-Be-Judge Exits Defense, Delaying Proceedings

By Peter Eibert

SACRAMENTO, CA – The trial readiness conference for alleged murderer Hong Pham had it all: a lengthy dispute over Pham’s mental competence, frustrated attorneys, an irritated judge, and a change in defense counsel. 

Pham is set to stand trial for an alleged premediated murder in 2017. On the same day after allegedly committing the homicide, Pham ran into traffic and suffered a traumatic brain injury. 

Two and a half years ago, Pham was certified as mentally competent enough to stand trial. However, new psychological tests certified Pham as not competent. 

David Bonilla, the defense attorney for Pham, argued that they need to suspend the trial again, noting the new psychological test should take precedence over the test from two and a half years ago.

“I don’t believe that mental health remains static; I think it’s a fluid situation,” said Bonilla, soon to be a new Superior Court judge in Sacramento County, as a recent appointee by the governor.

Bonilla said that the new evaluation “pointed out that she [Pham] appeared to be suffering from major neurocognitive disorders; this is partially due to her traumatic brain injury that she received.” He further noted that in the most recent evaluation that she “was acting hysterical, hitting her head, [and] seemed extremely depressed.” 

In order for a trial to be suspended based on a defendant’s competency to stand trial, there needs to have been a “substantial change in circumstances” from the last time the trial was suspended. 

Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Caroline Park argued that there was no substantial change in circumstances from the earlier test to the most recent: “All the observations, the characteristics that have been put in counsel’s declarations in addition to the psychologist’s declaration are exactly the same [as the earlier one].”

Park then lamented about how the case had already been suspended four times based on Pham’s determined lack of competence to stand trial. 

In the most recent psychological test, Pham had almost no usable knowledge of legal procedures. She “couldn’t name her attorney or the charges against her, or the role of the judge and the prosecutor.” Pham also said “my mind is not right,” after which she started crying. 

Park stated that “general vague statements are not sufficient to show a substantial change [in circumstances necessary to suspend the trial].” Park then asserted that “all the observations that the [most recent] doctor put in his report were in existence at the time of the very first examination.” 

In a surprising twist, Bonilla asked to be relieved from the case because of his recent appointment to the bench. Alexander Asterlin subsequently took over the case as the defense attorney for Pham. 

Judge Patrick Marlette held that six weeks was enough time for Asterlin to get caught up on the case, but Asterlin disagreed. 

Asterlin speculated that he would need more time, but Judge Marlette would not grant the continuance this early, noting, “I will hear a motion to continue when we have something to talk about,” referring to how Asterlin had not even looked at the evidence yet. 

Judge Marlette continued, saying, “I’m not interested in overworking you: all I want is your opinion, when you come to the spot having reviewed this case saying I can’t do it, then we can  move it. As opposed to you hearing now how big a case this is, and saying that you can’t do it in that amount of time. What is unreasonable about that?”

Asterlin agreed, but again stressed that his “schedule is very strained right now.”

Judge Marlette then set Pham’s next trial date for Nov. 29, with another trial readiness conference set for Nov. 17. 

About The Author

Peter Eibert is a fourth-year student at UC Davis, majoring in Political Science and minoring in History. He is originally from Half Moon Bay, California.

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