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Hoc Nguyen

Other New York County, New York exonerations
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In the early morning hours of August 31, 1986, Trung Nguyen was fatally shot while driving a van following a dance at the Grand Ballroom on Grand Street in Manhattan, New York.

A passenger in the van, Long Son, told police that he heard Trung speak to someone who was in a car that pulled up next to the van. Son said Trung addressed the man in the car as Hoc Nguyen just before gunshots were fired into the van. Trung was killed.

Police were unable to locate Nguyen until his arrest on February 7, 1987. He was charged with second-degree murder.

In September 1987, Nguyen went to trial in New York County Supreme Court. He chose to have the case decided by the trial judge—Justice Eve Preminger. The prosecution contended that Nguyen, who was also known variously as Hoc Thau Vu, Thin Vue and Vu Hoc Thai, fired the fatal shots from the passenger seat of a light-colored car which pulled alongside the commercial van driven by Trung. The prosecution said the motive for the slaying was the personal animosity between Trung and Nguyen: Trung believed that Nguyen had shot and seriously injured his friend Huu Huyh eight months earlier, in January 1986.

At that time of that shooting, Huu was not able to identify the person who shot him. Although police did question Nguyen about the wounding of Huu, no one had been charged with that crime.

Huu testified that months after that shooting, he and Trung were at a dance in New Jersey and they saw Nguyen. Huu said that Trung led him to Nguyen and lifted Huu’s shirt to show his scars. Huu said Trung demanded that Nguyen pay Huu $2,000 for medical costs, which had totaled more than $7,000.

Huu said Nguyen denied being the gunman and Trung said, “You did that and you have to pay or else.” Huu testified that Nguyen said, “Okay,” but that he had no money. Trung said he could pay Huu $200 a month and Nguyen said he would see what he could do.

There were two other confrontations with Nguyen over the shooting of Huu. Jonathan Psan testified about a party in the Bronx during which Trung confronted Nguyen in a bathroom and warned him to “watch out” because Trung had “a lot of friends.” And later that same night, according to Psan, Trung “tried to get [Nguyen],” but nothing happened.

And at another party that summer in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Nguyen left after an altercation with Huu and came to Psan’s car. Psan, who had driven Nguyen to the party, said that Nguyen asked Psan to open the truck to get a gun from his bag to defend himself. Psan said he calmed Nguyen down and they returned to the party without the gun.

On the night of August 30, 1986, Trung and Nguyen were seen having a conversation which lasted about 30 minutes. Thui Nguyen testified that she and some friends, including Hoc Nguyen, went to the ballroom between midnight and 1 a.m., the morning of August 31. She said Nguyen told her he was leaving early because he was not feeling well. Thui Nguyen testified, however, that when she went outside after the dance ended at 2 a.m., she saw Nguyen. When she expressed surprise at seeing him, Nguyen said, “I’ve got things to do,” she testified.

She said she crossed the street, spoke to some friends, and then walked up the street to the car of a friend who was driving her home. She said she heard the sound of a firecracker and someone said it was a shooting. She said about seven to 10 minutes had elapsed since she spoke to Nguyen.

Three other witnesses, Long Son, Bych Quyen Duong and Dung Trang, testified they saw Nguyen outside the ballroom around 2 a.m. Bych saw Nguyen “right in front of the entrance near the curb.” She said that when she told Nguyen it was time to go home, he replied, “Go ahead…I’ll go home later.”

Trang testified that he saw Nguyen standing just to the left of the dance hall near a white sports car talking to friends, but he did not see Nguyen get into the car. Son, a friend of Trung, testified that he saw Nguyen standing next to “his” car and that Nguyen’s girlfriend walked “to his car.” During cross-examination, Son admitted that he merely had assumed the car was Nguyen’s because he was standing next to it.

Although Psan told the jury that Nguyen did not own a car, Son testified that he saw Nguyen get into the driver’s seat of the small, light-colored car. Son later changed his testimony to say Nguyen got in on the passenger side.

Son testified that he and about nine or 10 others got into the back of the commercial van that Trung was driving. The van headed east, made a u-turn, and then stopped at a traffic light. Son testified that “his car,” referring to Nguyen and the small light-colored car, was “also next to ours and Trung was having a conversation with Nguyen.”

However, during cross-examination, Son admitted there were no side windows or seats in the van. He said he was sitting on the floor and could not see out of the driver’s side window or the windshield. When asked how he knew Trung was speaking to Nguyen, Son claimed he heard Trung greet Nguyen by name.

Tranh Minh, who was sitting directly behind Trung, testified that he heard Trung “talking to someone,” but he did not know who it was. Quang Huynh, the owner of the van who was in the front passenger seat, said he saw the light-colored car pull up next to the left side of the van. He said he could not see anyone in the car and only knew that Trung was speaking to someone who was outside the van.

The prosecution argued that Nguyen had fled after the shooting in a demonstration of “consciousness of guilt.” However, a prosecution witness, Dang Nguyen, testified that he picked up Nguyen at the airport in Los Angeles on the Friday before Labor Day. Labor Day in 1986 was Monday, September 1, which meant that the Friday before was August 29—which was prior to the shooting.

Bych Quyen Duong testified that Nguyen told her two weeks before the shooting that he was going away on business. Dung Trang testified that in mid-September, while he was on vacation in California, he ran into Nguyen. And Psan testified that Nguyen called him from from California at the end of the summer and invited him to visit.

Long Sinh testified he was standing on the sidewalk facing toward the ballroom when he heard three shots behind him. He turned and saw the flash of a fourth gunshot fired from the passenger side of a small white four-door car. The car, which was facing in the same direction as the van, then sped off, Sinh testified. He was unable to describe anyone in the car or provide a license plate number.

Police officers testified that when Nguyen was first questioned, he identified himself as “Vu Thu” and pretended not to recognize a photograph of himself. Two hours later, Nguyen said he “wanted to tell the truth” and identified himself as Hoc Vu. Detective Gary DiBlasi testified that Nguyen said he went to California to “get away from the police harassing” him about the shooting of Huu. Nguyen said he returned to New York because he could not find work in California. Nguyen denied shooting Trung. He said that on the night Trung was killed, members of Trung’s gang were harassing him. Nguyen said he took a taxi home from the dance because he was not feeling well. He said he arrived home around 11:45 p.m., listened to music by himself until other roommates came home around 2 a.m. Nguyen said he learned of Trung’s death in the media.

On October 5, 1987, Nguyen was convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

On January 6, 1989, the New York Appellate Division, First Department, overturned Nguyen’s conviction and dismissed the indictment. The court found there was insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction.

The court said that the prosecution’s case “hinged” upon a witness—Son—whose testimony was “embroidered with assertions about matters which he could not possibly have observed.” The court dismissed the prosecution's claim that Nguyen fled because he had committed the crime. “The fact that the defendant announced his plan to go away before the murder, then did not leave until five days after the murder and, while away, made no secret of his whereabouts, is evidence that his departure may have been prompted by motives other than consciousness of guilt,” the court said.

“Given the highly questionable testimony of Long Son, the only witness to link the defendant to the shooting and the equivocal nature of the evidence offered to show the defendant’s consciousness of guilt, a reasonable doubt persists,” the court declared. “It cannot be said that the inference of guilt is the only one which can be fairly and reasonably drawn from the facts proved in this case.”

Nguyen was released on February 2, 1989. The prosecution sought permission to appeal, but that motion was denied on June 19, 1989.

On March 2, 1990, Nguyen filed a claim for compensation in the New York Court of Claims. During a trial before Judge Albert Blinder, Nguyen testified that he did not commit the crime and was at home at the time of the shooting. On March 24, 1993, Judge Blinder ruled that Nguyen was factually innocent. The state of New York subsequently agreed to pay Nguyen $158,250 in compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/20/2021
Last Updated: 9/20/2021
State:New York
County:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1986
Convicted:1987
Exonerated:1993
Sentence:15 years to life
Race/Ethnicity:Asian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No