MOBILE, Ala. – A man was convicted Thursday of murdering four small children he threw from an 80-foot-high bridge on Alabama's Gulf coast, a crime prosecutors described as a horrific "death ride" for youngsters who thought they were in caring hands.
Lam Luong, 38, who emigrated from Vietnam at 14, presented no defense witnesses at his trial this week in Mobile.
A jury needed just 40 minutes to convict him of five counts of capital murder, one for each child and one extra because the case involves multiple victims. Capital murder is Alabama's only charge that carries a potential death sentence.
Jurors are scheduled to return Friday to recommend either death or life without parole, though the judge is not required to abide by their recommendation.
Prosecutors told jurors Luong committed an "unimaginable crime" by casting the four children — ages 4 months to 3 years — from the highest point of the Dauphin Island bridge on Jan. 7, 2008, after an argument with his common-law wife, Kieu Phan. Three of the children were his with Phan, 23, and the fourth was his wife's with another man.
Prosecution witnesses said they spotted Luong and the children in a van parked on the bridge that crosses the Mississippi Sound. One testified that he thought Luong was just tossing a bundle of garbage over the railing — only to learn later that bundle was the first child dropped into the water.
Assistant District Attorney Jo Beth Murphree, who led the prosecution, told jurors in closing arguments Thursday that the children "did not know they were on a death ride that morning. They trusted him ... The father has betrayed his children."
When parents kill their children, she said, "sometimes there is just evil. That's what we have in this case."
A tearful Phan declined to comment after the verdict as she left the courthouse escorted by relatives.
A part-time shrimper, Luong acknowledged killing the children in one statement while in custody, according to authorities. But officials said he later recanted to police, reverting to his initial story that an Asian woman named Kim had taken the children.
He had entered a guilty plea at a hearing before the trial and said he wanted to die, but later retracted that plea.
The dead were identified as Hannah Luong, 2; Ryan Phan, 3; Lindsey Luong, 1; and Danny Luong, 4 months. Their four tiny bodies were recovered from waters off the Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana coasts last year after a wide search involving hundreds of volunteers using boats and aircraft or scouring the shoreline on foot.
Defense attorney Greg Hughes said Luong was intoxicated when he went to the bridge after a night of smoking crack cocaine and drinking alcohol. Hughes urged the jury to return a reduced charge of manslaughter before they began deliberations shortly before noon Thursday.
But in his closing arguments, District Attorney John Tyson urged jurors to convict Luong of the more serious charge. He said the defendant was not intoxicated at the time and committed a "vengeful, spiteful crime" against his family that had been planned for months.
Tyson said he was pleased with the outcome on behalf of the Phan family and would ask the judge to impose a death sentence.
Defense attorneys declined comment on the verdict, which capped three days of testimony.
The children's' mother testified Monday that Luong had a girlfriend, used drugs and didn't find a job when the family returned to the Alabama coast after temporarily relocating to Georgia after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005.
She told jurors he laughed when he told her that the kids — while still reported missing — would never be found.
"He kept laughing," she said, bursting into tears when color photographs of the children were flashed on a screen Monday.
Phan, whose testimony in Vietnamese was interpreted by a translator, said Luong at first told her he had left the children with a woman.
Days later, when his story came under scrutiny and he was taken into custody, Luong had officers bring Phan to his jail cell to tell her: "They are all dead," according to her testimony.
"No way that we can find the children," she said he told her. "He kept laughing." She fell to her knees and cried, police testified.