The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday reversed the capital murder conviction and death sentence imposed on Lam Luong, finding that he was denied an impartial jury when the Mobile County trial court failed to move his trial or take other measures to protect against prejudicial publicity about the crime.
Lam Luong was charged with five counts of capital murder in the 2008 deaths of his four young children, whom prosecutors alleged Mr. Luong threw off the Dauphin Island bridge to the water 100 feet below. “[P]ublicity surrounding the murders completely saturated the Mobile community in 2008,” the criminal appeals court found. News media covered Mr. Luong’s prior criminal history, his decision to withdraw the guilty plea he initially entered prior to trial, the community’s outrage over the children’s deaths, and the community’s belief that Mr. Luong deserved the death penalty.
News media also covered extensively the impact of the crime on the community and the community’s involvement in the case and in the recovery efforts to find the children’s bodies. More than 150 people volunteered to help with the recovery. A local cemetery donated plots for the children to be buried. A local school raised money for the mother. A permanent memorial was erected at Maritime Park in Bayou La Batre to honor the children. The community was invited to the graveside service for the children, the victims’ family hosted an appreciation dinner for the volunteers who had searched for the children’s bodies, and a moment of silence was observed at a Mardi Gras parade to honor the children. As the court observed, “Individuals indicated how consumed the Mobile community had become with the tragedy and the anger and outrage that the community felt toward Luong.”
That coverage was still prominent in jurors’ minds at the the time of trial, wrote the court. “Although a great deal of the media coverage of the crimes was factual in nature,” the court wrote, “a great deal was also inflammatory and consisted of personal attacks against Luong and comments concerning what Luong’s punishment should be. Based on the media coverage, it would appear that Luong was tried and convicted before his trial.”
Because of the extensive and pervasive publicity – as well as the public’s involvement in all aspects of the case — the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the trial court erred when it denied Mr. Luong’s motion to change venue and move the trial. The court further found that the trial court’s failure to individually question potential jurors about how the publicity had effected them denied Mr. Luong his constitutional right to an impartial jury. The appeals court reversed Mr. Luong’s convictions and death sentences and remanded the case for a new trial.
Mr. Luong had also argued on appeal that the trial court erred in allowing the prosecution to show jurors a videotape of a police officer throwing sandbags off of the Dauphin Island bridge during the penalty phase, because it depicted a scientific experiment that should have been conducted by an expert. The appeals court agreed, finding that the admission of the videotape was error because an appropriate expert did not testify.
Further, the court instructed that for any future proceedings, Mr. Luong’s defense is entitled to funds to travel to Vietnam, where Mr. Luong lived until age 13 and where his family currently resides, to investigate mitigation evidence; the trial court must ensure that a complete record of jury selection is made, including the trial court’s instructions to jurors regarding the questionnaire; and Mr. Luong must have an adequate and reliable interpreter to assist him and his counsel at trial.