A Fairfax County jury on Thursday convicted a former day laborer of first-degree murder in the 2010 death of 19-year-old Vanessa Pham, a college student who was home for the summer when she was killed by a stranger she had met in a parking lot.
Julio Blanco Garcia, 27, stabbed Pham as she gave him and his year-old daughter a ride from a Falls Church shopping center June 27, 2010. Blanco Garcia, who did not know the young woman, had asked her to take him to a hospital.
On Thursday night, the jury sentenced Blanco Garcia to 49 years in prison — 30 years plus the 19 years of Pham’s life.
The slaying was one of the area’s highest-profile unsolved killings for 21 / 2 years. Pham, who wanted to be a fashion designer, had just finished her first year at Savannah College of Art and Design. She had happily told friends that she had been offered a summer job as a nanny. The defendant himself said she had a “good heart” for giving him a ride.
As the verdict was read, Pham’s family and friends held one another, and some cried. Blanco Garcia looked down, as he had for the entire trial, registering no emotion.
Soon after, Julie Pham, Vanessa’s mother, testified about losing her only child, a daughter she had worked two jobs to support.
“I have no life,” Pham said sobbing. “I just stay in my room.”
The verdict followed more than three days of testimony from detectives, forensic experts and Pham’s relatives and friends. Blanco Garcia is scheduled to be formally sentenced Nov. 15. In Virginia, a judge can reduce a jury’s sentence but cannot increase it.
During closing arguments Thursday, Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Casey Lingan asked the jury to find Blanco Garcia guilty of first-degree premeditated murder. The packed courtroom was silent.
“How much more cruel of an act could this defendant commit against Vanessa Pham?” Lingan asked. “Stabbing her as she fought with her fists and her leg . . . six times in the lungs . . . leaving her to bleed out. Daresay, if that’s not cruel, I don’t know the definition of cruel.”
Prosecutors said Blanco Garcia’s intent to kill was evident in the number of times he stabbed Pham: 13. They said he later disposed of Pham’s cellphone and threw away his bloodied clothes and backpack.
Defense attorneys acknowledged that Blanco Garcia was the killer. But they said he had not intended to harm Pham. In his closing argument, attorney David Bernhard reiterated a phrase the defense used again and again to describe the crime: a “perfect storm of tragedy.”
Defense attorneys said Blanco Garcia had smoked PCP that Sunday and planned to steal TVs from stores. But as he set out with his daughter, he became sick from the drug and got off the bus at Fairfax Plaza Shopping Center. They said he was in distress, and asked Pham to take him to the hospital.
As they were driving, defense attorneys said, Pham made a wrong turn, and Blanco Garcia became paranoid. He pulled a butcher knife from his backpack and stabbed Pham as his daughter sat nearby, they said.
“We have told you this defendant was hallucinating and fearful and that was his motivation,” Bernhard said. “His actions were not the product of hatred.”
The defense called just three witnesses when presenting its case Thursday. Two Fairfax County police officers testified that they had each responded to a call in 2006 after Blanco Garcia had reportedly used crack and PCP.
The defense’s third witness, a forensic toxicologist, testified that the symptoms Blanco Garcia said he had suffered the day of the killing were consistent with PCP intoxication. He said that PCP users can suffer hallucinations and have breaks with reality.
But the trial ultimately turned on the words of the defendant himself. Blanco Garcia never took the stand, but prosecutors played a dramatic, two-hour police interrogation during which the defendant broke down, admitted his role in the killing and apologized.
“I remember I asked [Pham] to drop me off at the hospital,” Blanco Garcia told detectives. “Then she took the wrong way. In my mind, because I was really high, I thought she was going to do something to me. I had a knife in my backpack . . . and then I did what I did.”
After the verdict, prosecutors played a video that Pham had made for a friend in an idle moment.
She makes faces, talks about all the homework she has to do and says she wishes she was eating guacamole – the daily concerns of a young life that would soon be over.
“Alright, I’m going to leave you,” Pham said, and the screen went black.