Man Gets Life Term In Double Slaying

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dinh Pham knew all about violence and death. As a boy growing up in Vietnam, he had seen neighbors and a relative killed during fierce bombing near the Cambodian border after the fall of Saigon. When he was 5, his father, a soldier, was held captive in a Communist prison camp while the family was left to starve in a remote village where violence was an everyday occurrence.

Thousands of others in Vietnam suffered a similar fate, but yesterday, his attorney argued in a Fairfax County courtroom that Pham never fully recovered from the trauma of those years and was mentally impaired. That, he said, could explain why Pham strangled a Fairfax woman and her 22-month-old daughter in their Merrifield home more than 2 1/2 years ago.

"This man, with his limited ability, made a wrong choice and did something bad," said Assistant Capital Defender Paul A. Maslakowski. "He didn't set out to do it with evil in his heart."

Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Leslie M. Alden decided to spare Pham's life.

Four months after Pham, 34, pleaded guilty to murdering Loan P. Nguyen, 30, and her daughter, Ashley N. Ton, Alden sentenced Pham to life in prison without parole for killing Ashley and gave him an additional life sentence for slaying the child's mother. The judge also added 40 years for grand larceny and burglary charges.

"Your crimes in this case were simply unspeakable. They were reprehensible, and they were heinous," Alden said. "But there is nothing that the court can do to bring back the lives of those innocent, innocent victims."

On Jan. 7, 2004, Pham sneaked into the home of his former employer, a building contractor, to steal $1,000 because he was desperate for money to feed a gambling habit. Pham hid in a closet when he suddenly realized that Nguyen was at home. When she emerged from the shower, he strangled her and the child and stuffed their bodies in a crawl space in their Lester Lee Court townhouse.

Maslakowski said the killings were tragic, but he successfully argued that his client did not deserve to be put to death for his crimes, saying a lifetime of deprivation and exposure to violence during the Vietnam War left Pham with post-traumatic stress disorder. Maslakowski said the killings were the outgrowth of Pham's limited mental capacity and childhood trauma suffered during the war.

"There is nothing that we have heard that makes Dinh Pham the worst of the worst," Maslakowski said. "There is nothing other than those 30 or 45 minutes [during the killings] to suggest that he was anything more than a limited man who was in over his head."

Psychologist William Stejskal testified that Pham likely had borderline autism or possibly Asperger syndrome, a similar developmental disability. Years after leaving Vietnam, Pham withdrew from the world, and about 1998, soon after his mother died, he began gambling heavily, Stejskal said.

But Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. called on his own expert, who found no evidence of mental stress. During several interviews, Alexandria psychologist Stanton Samenow said, Pham did not express remorse.

"Stress does not equal post-traumatic stress disorder," Samenow said. "Certainly, every person that grew up in Vietnam did not end up killing two people."

Nguyen's husband, Huy Hoang Ton, agreed. Ton, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1992, struggled to compose himself as he faced his wife's killer for the first time in months. He said the Vietnam War had been just as hard on his family after the fall of Saigon as it was on Pham's family and was no excuse for murder.

"My life was torn apart," Ton said as he described finding the bodies of his wife and child.

This year, Alden ruled that prosecutors could not seek the death penalty because Pham had not been informed of his right to consult his embassy. But the Virginia Supreme Court overturned that ruling, and Pham was facing death again after pleading guilty to murder and grand larceny.

Shortly before Alden's ruling, Pham stood stiffly and, through an interpreter, apologized to Ton and his family. Then he apologized to his father and his siblings for bringing shame on the family.

"I am very remorseful," Pham said.

Outside the courtroom, Ton, 36, said he had treated Pham like a brother and had cautioned him numerous times about his gambling. Ton said he was disappointed in the judge's ruling.

"He should have gotten the death penalty -- not just for me, but for the state of Virginia. We waited too long, and it didn't come out like everybody thought it would. He should get what he deserves," Ton said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company