The Symphony Towers is home to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division 1. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A state appeals court panel Tuesday overturned a man’s murder conviction in the car-to-car shooting death of a 16-year-old boy on a San Diego freeway more than two decades ago, marking the second time the defendant’s conviction has been reversed on appeal.

Phong Huynh was convicted in two separate jury trials in 2015 and 2019 for the Feb. 13, 2000, slaying of Nghia Tan Pham. Huynh was sentenced each time to 50 years to life in state prison.

Pham was struck in the head by one of about a half-dozen shots fired at the car he was driving on southbound Interstate 15, north of state Route 52.

The case went unsolved for more than a decade until Huynh, who was living in Montana, was identified as a suspect.

Prosecutors alleged Pham was killed in retaliation for a fight he was involved in at a San Diego pool hall, where he inadvertently bumped a man with a pool cue while lining up a shot at a billiards table. The fight, which involved some friends and associates of the defendant, triggered another altercation days later at an area coffee shop, then the shooting of Pham, which occurred about a week after the pool hall fight.

Huynh’s trial attorney concurred that Pham was killed in connection with the pool hall brawl, but alleged that the killing was committed by a pair of San Jose-area gang members who were in San Diego because they were on the run due to an attempted murder drive-by shooting they committed in the Bay Area.

In the latest appeal, Huynh’s attorney alleged the jury was improperly allowed to hear evidence suggesting that Huynh was a member of, or associated with a gang.

A three-justice panel from California’s 4th District Court of Appeal wrote that Huynh was associated with a group called Thien Dang, though no evidence was presented that it was a gang, but rather “a place or group of Vietnamese men who gathered to socialize and drink.”

Huynh was also not charged with any gang allegations, according to the panel, which wrote that the gang evidence was “inflammatory by implying to the jury that the defendant had a disposition or character for using overwhelming violence in retaliation for disrespect, with no foundational support.”

The panel wrote that this “irrelevant, inflammatory evidence that defendant was a gang member contributed to the verdict.”

While the latest appeal involved the improper inclusion of gang evidence, the previous appeal involved an overturned conviction because Huynh was not allowed to introduce gang-related evidence of his own.

In that appeal, the panel ruled that Huynh should have been allowed to introduce evidence that some of the prosecution’s witnesses were associated with a gang that frequented the pool hall and coffee shop. Huynh was accused of confessing to killing Pham — an associate of some of the gang’s members — at one of the suspected gang members’ homes, something his first trial lawyer characterized as “so highly improbable as to be ridiculous,” according to the court’s ruling.

The gang evidence was not allowed to be presented at trial, as it was ruled to have no bearing on Huynh’s alleged motive, but the appellate court ruled that its introduction would have allowed for “a materially different understanding of the relationships between the relevant individuals.”

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