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Questions of fairness follow rape trial verdict Hmong community is affected, defense lawyers say.

BY: Kimi Yoshino, THE FRESNO BEE - July 15, 2000

The 273 verdicts had all been read, the gang-rape defendants were back in their cells and the weight of it all was starting to sink in. Seven of 10 defendants convicted on more than 100 counts.

Prosecutors say they are facing dozens of years behind bars. Vang Pao Moua, 28, found guilty on 26 counts, could be sentenced to a maximum 126 years to life. Another defendant, Tue Xiong, 20, faces 85 years in prison. Sia John Lor, 20, could get 69 years.

"I really hope the judge looks at this for what it is -- a prostitution case," said defense lawyer Cindy Hopper, who represents Lor.

"His dad called and he said to me ... 'This has been a very bad day for me. I really can't believe this country.' ... He honestly believed that because they were Asian Hmong, they did not get a fair trial."

Hopper does not believe the trial, which ended with Thursday's reading of the verdicts, was unfair. But with the defendants facing so many charges, she said, convictions were inevitable.

"Here the district attorney has brought all these charges. People say to me, 'When that guy walks in with that jumpsuit, he's guilty. He's got to be guilty of something.' ... Just the sheer number, I think the jury had to find something."

One defendant, Fong Moua, 19, was acquitted, but will serve a 19-year prison term in connection with an earlier rape case. The jury deadlocked on one defendant, Lor Thao, 19, who later pleaded to a lesser charge and was released from jail Thursday night.

The costly trial lasted six months. Defense lawyer Steve Crawford said there is a lesson to be learned.

"We warned the prosecution at the beginning: You shouldn't be doing this," Crawford said. "At some point, we have to limit the ability of prosecutors to bring whatever charges they feel like there are without having the actual proof."

Crawford and other lawyers said they intend to ask the judge to set aside some of the verdicts or allow the defendants to be retried on certain charges.

But authorities are celebrating the near-decimation of the Mongolian Boys Society gang and defending their vigorous prosecution.

"If they're lawfully charged with actions the Legislature has deemed to be illegal and if they had a fair trial, then I think the system worked," Deputy District Attorney Doug Haas said. "They were acquitted of some charges and convicted of some charges."

"It made a statement against a criminal street gang. Hopefully, it lets gang members know that if they're planning to violate the law, the people will respond and hold them responsible."

The prosecution against the Mongolian Boys Society began more than two years ago with a headline-grabbing case against 14 suspects accused of raping three girls at a Motel 6. One defendant, Johnny Yang, was convicted and sentenced to 280 years. A dozen others were convicted or pleaded guilty to numerous sexual assault charges.

The second phase of the investigation was even bigger: 23 defendants, an 826-count indictment and nine young victims.

At the heart of the prosecution's allegations were girls, ages 13 to 15, who told police they were raped repeatedly -- sometimes by several suspects -- then forced into prostitution. Some said they were kidnapped, unable to leave and taken across state lines.

Defense lawyers attacked the girls' credibility, subjecting them to cross-examination, sometimes by as many as 14 lawyers. In the end, both the District Attorney's Office and Superior Court Judge Gene Gomes dismissed hundreds of counts.

Though many of the charges were dropped, defense lawyers said the impact on the Hmong community may last for years.

"This has given the Hmong community a black eye, one that's not warranted," Hopper said. "People are probably going, 'Yeah, good, look at those little gangbangers. They're going to rot in jail.'"

Crawford agreed: "This is not a representation of the Hmong community just as Crips and Bloods are [not] a representation of the black community."

And today, after the trial and after the verdicts, there remains lingering doubts within the Hmong community whether the girls embellished the truth.

"The girls themselves were gang members, too," said Shur Vangyi, the city's liaison to the Southeast Asian community. "A lot of people disagree with the girls for charging the boys with raping them. We, as parents, would want to put them both into jail. Not everyone believed the girls."

Defense lawyer Crawford said he believes the girls prostituted themselves willingly, but when they returned to their families they had to face reality.

"You blame somebody else," Crawford said. "I'm not saying these guys are all these innocent angels. They're not. They're gang members, but certainly forcible rape, to me, is out of the question."

Haas said he trusts the four victims with whom he worked most closely.

"I don't think they got up and lied," he said. "I don't think that at all. I think they told the truth to the best of their recollection and memory."

Despite the skepticism among Hmong community members, Vangyi said he supports the police efforts to combat gangs. Now, he simply hopes to move forward.

"Maybe we'll forget about what has happened in the past and hope that in the future, this will not happen again and things will get better."