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Questions linger in 2004 fatal shootings case

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A Gwinnett Superior Court judge on Friday allowed defense attorneys more time to prepare an argument that their client, who faces the death penalty, has been denied his Constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Khahn Dinh Phan is accused of fatally shooting Lilburn resident Hung Thai and his 2-year-old son in December 2004. Prosecutors believe he also shot and injured Thai's wife at the family's Martin Nash Road home.

Defense attorneys for Phan call the nearly six-year delay in his trial evidence of a systematic breakdown in Georgia's public defender system. The state, they maintain, has not been able to keep up with payments for his defense.

Lack of funds in the state's indigent defense system has hampered the efforts of Phan's attorneys, including nixing their plans to interview witnesses in Vietnam, attorney Christopher W. Adams said.

Prosecutors beg to differ. Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Lisa Jones said the delays are more a product of stall tactics by the defense, and she isn't convinced it's been detrimental to Phan.

"We have in no way contributed to this issue -- (the defense has) continually asked for delays," Jones said. "Our position is that this is patently unfair and doesn't allow cases to be tried on their merits."

The Georgia Supreme Court directed Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Ronnie Batchelor several months ago to determine if Phan's rights have been violated, and to investigate the possibility of alternative funding. Neither was achieved Friday.

Questions over complexities in bookkeeping and a paper trail within the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council gummed Friday's proceedings. Batchelor said another hearing will be held in about a month for further evidence. He also plans to hear other funding options then.

Two murder charges, among other felonies against Phan, could be thrown out should Batchelor rule in favor of the defense. Any decision would likely be appealed, prosecutors said.

Adams was contracted to represent Phan for a set fee of $105,000 in 2008, according to testimony.

Holly LeBerge, government relations director with the council, testified that the whole amount has been made available for Phan's defense, including a $40,000 check cut to Adams last week. The money includes fees for expert witnesses and other expenses.

"There are no outstanding bills to be paid at this time," LeBerge testified.

Jerry Word, interim director of the Georgia Capitol Defender's Office, took over that role for Adams in 2007. He said the state's budget woes have restricted capital defense cases statewide and that his office is handling nearly double the cases it should.

"The caseload within the office is such that ... right now, we are way overloaded," Word said.

At Friday's daylong hearing, Phan donned a green jail jumpsuit, mussed black hair and listened via an interpreter. As the hearing concluded, Batchelor asked Phan if he wished to air any concerns he's had with his defense.

"No, sir," he replied.

Phan reportedly did the killings as revenge for a gambling debt. He was married at the time with three children and operated successful nail salons in Lawrenceville and Forsyth County.

Thai's wife was shot in the head and awoke from a coma weeks later. She fingered Phan as the killer, authorities said in 2006.

Phan's case joins one other pending death penalty case in Gwinnett.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for quadruple-homicide suspect Richard Ringold, 45. He's accused of shooting his victims -- which included his girlfriend and her 11-year-old daughter -- execution-style during a domestic rampage at a Lawrenceville home last year.

In August, Donald Sanders and his sister-in-law, Kayla, avoided the death penalty when they pleaded guilty to beating, robbing and fatally stabbing an elderly Snellville woman in 2004. Both were sentenced to life in prison.