Everyone agreed that Vanessa Pham’s killer sat in a Fairfax County courtroom Monday, but prosecutors and defense attorneys clashed over what would possess a man to brutally stab the college freshman to death in a moving car as his 1-year-old daughter sat nearby.
Prosecutors said in opening statements in the murder trial of Julio Miguel Blanco Garcia that it was a premeditated killing that brought a “young life to a horrific end.” They asked jurors to find the Falls Church day laborer guilty of first-degree murder.
Defense attorneys argued that an improbable chain of events on June 27, 2010, led to the slaying, which for 21 / 2 years remained one of the area’s highest-profile unsolved murders. Blanco Garcia has pleaded not guilty.
“This is not a case that is about who,” defense attorney Alberto Salvado said in his opening statement. “This is a case about why. It is a perfect storm of tragedy.”
For the first time Monday, Salvado laid out the defense’s version of events. He said Blanco Garcia smoked three to five PCP-laced cigarettes on that summer Sunday. He was planning to steal televisions from a store, Salvado said.
But after catching a bus with his daughter, Blanco Garcia started to become ill from the PCP and got off at the Fairfax Center Shopping Plaza in Falls Church, the attorney said. He felt worse and approached the 19-year-old Pham, who was leaving a nail salon, for a ride to the hospital. Surveillance video showed Pham’s Toyota Scion leaving the shopping center shortly after 3 p.m.
“He’s hallucinating. He starts to flip out,” Salvado said. Pham “made a wrong turn and put herself directly in the eye of the storm.”
Blanco Garcia sensed danger when Pham drove the wrong way down a one-way road, Salvado said. He said Blanco Garcia pulled a knife he brought to steal the TVs and stabbed Pham — an autopsy showed a total of 13 times.
The car careened out of control and landed on its side off of Route 50 a short distance from the shopping center. Blanco Garcia told authorities after his arrest that he grabbed his daughter and fled out the sunroof of the car, court paper says. A driver spotted the vehicle a short time later and called police.
Salvado said there were no signs Blanco Garcia attempted to rob or rape Pham. Her purse sat in the car untouched.
Chief Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Casey Lingan did not specify what evidence prosecutors will present to show the killing was “willful, deliberate and premeditated” — the standard that must be met for a first-degree murder conviction in Virginia.
But in an interview with police after his arrest, Blanco Garcia said that after Pham made the wrong turn, he feared she was going to call the police.
During opening statements, Julie Pham, Vanessa’s mother, sat in the front row of the courtroom and dabbed her eyes with a tissue. A handful of Pham’s friends sat nearby, crying and hugging.
Among the first witnesses in the trial, which could last long as six days, were two officers who arrived at the grisly scene of the crash. The Scion had plunged into a ditch and was resting on its side in some underbrush, the officers said. Pham was still belted in the driver’s seat, but her body had fallen across the passenger’s seat.
“There was an extraordinary amount of blood,” Fairfax County police Officer Scott Neville testified.
As prosecutors showed the jury pictures of Pham’s body, some jurors winced and recoiled in their seats.
Authorities followed dozens of leads after Pham’s killing but did not get a major break until Blanco Garcia was arrested and convicted of shoplifting champagne in 2012.
Fingerprints taken after the conviction matched those found on the knife used to kill Pham and on her car, according to court papers. Blanco Garcia was arrested in December.
The trial is the first in Fairfax County in nearly two decades in which cameras have been allowed in the courtroom.
The Washington Post will provide coverage throughout the trial. Follow reporter Justin Jouvenal, @jjouvenal, on Twitter for live updates.