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Matthew Ngov

Other Los Angeles Murder Exonerations
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At 7:33 p.m. on June 21, 2011, shots fired from a passing car killed 34-year-old Pablo Ortiz as he rode his bicycle near the intersection of St. Louis Avenue and East 14th Street in Long Beach, California.

Security video from a nearby building showed a black Lexus drive down the street prior to the shooting. The video also showed an arm reach out of the rear passenger side window and drop a soft drink cup onto the street. The car came back not long after, and what appeared to be the same arm reached out with a pistol. Several shots were fired and Ortiz was struck three times.

The crime went unsolved until November 10, 2011, when Long Beach police arrested several alleged gang members as part of an investigation of a subsequent shooting that wounded two people on the street in Long Beach. Among those arrested—but not charged in that shooting—was 20-year-old Matthew Ngov, who was a member of the Asian Boyz street gang.

Ngov had been under surveillance for several weeks after DNA testing identified his DNA—which was in the California DNA database due to a prior conviction for possession of Ecstasy—as being present on the straw in the discarded soft drink cup.

Detective Peter Lackovic interrogated Ngov and told him that witnesses had identified him as the gunman—which was not true and a ruse in an attempt to get Ngov to confess to the crime. Lackovic showed Ngov a photograph of the Lexus and told Ngov that his DNA was on the straw.

Ngov denied involvement in the crime. He told Lackovic to “do your job” and to “blow up the video” so that he could see that Ngov was not the gunman. Ngov also said, “I know it’s not me and hopefully a jury will (know it wasn’t him)…keep looking for more evidence.”

Ngov was charged with first-degree murder, shooting a weapon from a vehicle, and illegal possession of a firearm by a felon.

On March 5, 2013, Ngov went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The security video was played. It showed the Lexus drive by and someone in the rear passenger seat drop the soda cup, which came from a Subway store, onto the street. The car left the scene, returned, and the rear passenger shot Ortiz. Seven nine-millimeter shell casings were recovered.

Long Beach police officer Alfonso Garcia testified that he recovered the soda cup. He said, “There was still liquid inside of the cup. I held the cup to pour the liquid out, and I placed it in a brown paper bag.” The prosecutor asked, “Was there anything else inside the cup?”

“There was still possible ice chunks that hadn’t melted yet,” Garcia testified. “I just assume it was diluted beverage that had ice still in it.”

The prosecutor then asked, “And as you’re pouring the diluted beverage, what you are saying is possible ice chunks still in that beverage, could you see what color the liquid was?”

“It was just a cloudy, cloudy liquid. Just like melted ice,” Garcia said.

During cross-examination by Ngov’s attorney, Jay Glaser, Garcia admitted that he had not said anything about ice in the cup in his report.

Long Beach Detective Gregory Krabbe testified that he watched Garcia empty the cup and he did not see any ice.

Cheryl Anderson, a DNA analyst, testified that two DNA profiles were found on the straw. A major profile was Ngov’s. She said no effort was made to identify the minor profile. The cup was not tested for DNA.

Mari Johnson, a forensic identification specialist, testified that she lifted a fingerprint off the side of the cup near the bottom. The print had been left when the cup was dry, Johnson said. She said she found no evidence that the cup had been wet.

Richard Solorio, a Long Beach police gang expert, testified that the shooting was gang-related. Ngov was a member of the Asian Boyz gang, which had an alliance with the Suicidal Town Crip and The Exotic Family City Crip gangs. The Lexus was owned by Vanarith Kuy, a member of the Suicidal Town Crip gang.

Detective Lackovic testified about his interrogation of Ngov and that he subsequently placed Ngov in a jail cell with Barry Prak, a fellow gang member. The cell was equipped with a recording device. While in the cell, Ngov was recorded saying, “That was the first time…the first time something (obscenity) up on me, and the last time.”

While in the cell, Ngov also told Prak that he was a friend of Vanarith Kuy, the owner of the Lexus.

The prosecution contended these statements were admissions by Ngov that he was the gunman.

During cross-examination of Lackovic, Ngov’s attorney questioned the detective extensively about Ngov’s reaction to being accused of being the gunman—that he told Lackovic to keep looking for evidence and that he was not the gunman.

“He got upset with you and told you to do your job, didn’t he?” Glaser asked.

“That was one of the things he told me, yes, sir,” Lackovic said.

“He told you to keep looking and get evidence, didn’t he?” Glaser asked.

“He did,” Lackovic said.

“He told you, ‘Do your job, man. Blow it up. Blow up the video.’ right?” Glaser asked.

“Yes, sir,” Lackovic replied.

“And you told him that’s the least of your concerns. Right?”

“Yes, sir,” Lackovic said.

“And he said, ‘I know it’s not me. And hopefully a jury will. Do your job,’” Glaser said.

At that point, Los Angeles County deputy district attorney Jacob Yim objected to the questions as eliciting inadmissible hearsay.

Judge Pierce overruled the objection. “No. I’ll allow it.”

Glaser continued, asking, “And he said, ‘Please find more evidence. Keep looking for evidence.’ Correct?”

“That sounds correct. Yes, sir,” Lackovic said.

Jasmyn Fajardo testified that she was Ngov’s girlfriend and they were living together. She told the jury that they went to a Home Depot store to buy an air conditioner. The register receipt was timed at 6:48 p.m. She said that after she took the air conditioner to the car, Ngov went back to the store and bought a soda. That receipt was timed at 6:56 p.m.

She said they were together at their home for about an hour and a half before leaving to go to the Home Depot. When they got back home, they discovered something was wrong with the unit and called the 800 number on the box at 8:08 p.m. to report the issue.

Ngov testified and denied he was involved in the shooting. He said he was with Fajardo at Home Depot between 6 and 7 p.m. He went back inside to use the bathroom while Fajardo took the air conditioner to the car. He said he bought a soda on the way out. He said he had his cell phone with him the entire time.

Ngov identified the Lexus on the surveillance tape as that of his friend, whom he knew as “Knuckles.” Ngov said he had been in the car prior to the time of the shooting, and that he had bought a soda at a Subway store and left the container in the back seat.

Ngov said he suspected “Knuckles” was the gunman. He told the jury that when he heard about the shooting, he was concerned he might be blamed because he had been in the car before.

Ngov said his conversation with Prak in the jail referred to the first time he had handled a gun when he was 16 and was caught by the police.

The defense presented evidence that Ngov’s cell phone connected to a cell phone towers near his home between 6:45 and 8:00 p.m. In addition, Fajardo’s phone also connected to the same tower at 7:20 p.m.

Fajardo’s phone connected to the cell tower near Home Depot between 6:47 and 6:50, although Ngov’s did not.

Fingerprint expert Donald Keir testified the latent print on the bottom of the cup was a palm print, and it was not Ngov’s. In rebuttal, Detective Lackovic said he drove from Ngov’s residence to the crime scene about six times, and each time the trip took about 11 minutes.

The prosecution contended that after returning from the Home Depot, Ngov got into the Lexus with his friend. While driving around, he spotted Ortiz and shot him.

On March 13, Judge Pierce declared a mistrial when the jury reported it was deadlocked with nine jurors voting to convict and three jurors voting to acquit.

On December 5, 2013, Ngov went to trial a second time represented by a different lawyer, Steve Kwon. At this trial, officer Garcia for the first time testified that there was condensation on the cup that he recovered from the street, and that when he shook the cup, he could hear ice rattling inside.

When detective Lackovic testified, Kwon attempted to elicit the same testimony about Ngov telling Lackovic to do his job by getting more evidence and blowing up the video.

Without waiting for the prosecution to object, Judge Pierce not only barred Kwon from eliciting the testimony, but chastised him in front of the jury. “I don’t want to argue and teach you the law,” Judge Pierce said.

During an extended conference outside the presence of the jury, Pierce further criticized Kwon about his questioning of other witnesses.

On December 10, 2013, the jury convicted Ngov of first-degree murder, firing a weapon from a vehicle, and illegal possession of a firearm by a felon. He was sentenced to 57 years to life in prison.

Deborah Hawkins, Ngov’s appeals lawyer, argued that Judge Pierce had overstepped by denying Kwon the same opportunity that Glaser had in the first trial to elicit Ngov’s statements to Lackovic.

Hawkins also claimed that after being upbraided by Judge Pierce, Kwon had failed to introduce significant evidence on Ngov’s behalf. In particular, he failed to introduce evidence showing how Garcia’s testimony about the cup had evolved over time to include rattling ice and condensation on the outside, which the prosecution argued was evidence that Ngov had recently handled the cup dropped from the Lexus. Kwon failed to put on any evidence about the distance between Ngov’s home and the crime scene that would have rebutted Lackovic’s claim about the drive taking 11 minutes. Kwon also failed to elicit evidence that there was no way to determine when Ngov’s DNA came to be on the straw in the soda cup.

In October 2015, California's Court of Appeal for the Second District reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial. “We agree it is reasonably probable the jury would have returned a more favorable verdict for Ngov but for the trial court’s improper intervention preventing the introduction by defense counsel of statements made by Ngov when accused of the crime, evidence that had been allowed at the first trial,” the appellate court ruled. “While we are reluctant to second-guess the intentions of trial judges, it is apparent the court here, having heard Detective Lackovic’s testimony at the first trial, which ended in a hung jury, determined this evidence should not be admitted and acted, improperly, to exclude it even before the prosecutor could perform his assigned role,” the appellate court said. “Seen in this light, the court abandoned its role as a neutral and impartial arbiter of justice.”

Defense attorney Jamon Hicks then took over the case before a different judge. A third trial ended in a mistrial in June 2018. A fourth trial began in August 2019. Hicks was allowed to elicit Ngov’s statements to Lackovic. Hicks also presented evidence that two witnesses to the shooting said the gunman was a dark-skinned black man, not a light-skinned Asian man.

Hicks impeached Garcia about his changing testimony regarding the condensation and rattling ice.

On August 14, 2019, the jury acquitted Ngov and he was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/30/2019
State:California
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Other Violent Felony, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2011
Convicted:2013
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:57 to life
Race:Asian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No