LAWRENCEVILLE — Embroiled in the stress of final exams, Mai Nguyen left home the night of Dec. 1 last year for coffee at a Duluth bakery with a fellow college student.
Only the man she was meeting wasn’t her fiance.
Attorneys on both sides of a murder trial that opened Wednesday concede that Nguyen’s clandestine relationship fueled the fatal, public stabbing of Vu Quang Lu, 24, the man she met for coffee.
Charged in the killing is Norcross resident Son Hoang, 29, the father of Nguyen’s son and daughter with whom she’d been engaged for about seven years before their relationship started to crumble.
Attorneys for Hoang painted him as a devoted father who financed Nguyen’s studies at Gwinnett Tech by traveling to Alabama, where he stayed four days a week to work in a nail salon. The couple lived with their children, ages 2 and 6, under Hoang’s mother’s roof when she began an intimate relationship with Lu, a mutual friend, according to testimony.
“She believed that she was an Americanized woman, a modern woman, who could be with whomever she wanted,” defense attorney Seth Kirschenbaum told jurors in opening statements.
That the months-long love triangle was steeped in deceit was hardly justification for Hoang to confront the pair at the Cafe Mozart Bakery and stab Lu several times — including a fatal blow to his heart — as Nguyen tried to stop the fight and patrons looked on, said Assistant District Attorney Maggie Benson.
Lu was cornered in a booth and had “nowhere to go” when the defendant attacked him, Benson told jurors.
Investigators initiated a manhunt for Hoang, but he surrendered to police at a Norcross precinct about 90 minutes later. He wore a jacket stained with blood that matched Lu’s DNA and had copped to the killing in a voice mail to a friend, Benson said.
Hoang had warned Nguyen, 24, and her mother that the fling should come to an end in the weeks leading to the killing, she said.
The key question for jurors is whether or not Hoang planned to kill the victim, or flew into a rage and lost control of himself that night. In opening statements, Hoang’s defense asserted that the stabbing was born of a sudden, passionate act, hinting the crime fits the mold of voluntary manslaughter more than felony murder.
The difference could be a matter of decades in prison. The maximum sentence for a voluntary manslaughter conviction is 20 years, versus at least life imprisonment for murder, according to Georgia code.
The defense’s theory was lent some credence when Nguyen testified her fiance habitually carried the pocket knife that pierced Lu’s heart. She also said Lu spoke with a challenging tone in his few words with Hoang before the stabbing.
The confrontation marked the first time Hoang had seen the two together as an item.
“I never thought he would (act violently),” Nguyen testified, wearing a black, V-neck blouse, her dark hair streaked with blonde highlights.
A Gwinnett grand jury saw fit to indict Hoang in March on counts of murder, felony murder and aggravated assault. Donning a striped Oxford and black tie, his hair parted down the middle, the diminutive Hoang listened quietly to testimony, at times shaking his head.
Benson said testimony should span a few days, with between 18 and 20 witnesses. She played a chilling 911 call from Nguyen in which a dispatcher advised her to place clean towels over Lu’s wounds.
“I need an ambulance,” Ng
uyen frantically pleaded on tape. “He just got stabbed ... please hurry up. What do I do?”