MOBILE, Ala. – An Alabama man who is charged with tossing his four children to their deaths from a coastal bridge last year withdrew his guilty plea Wednesday while a jury was being selected to hear the case against him.
Officials said 38-year-old Lam Luong, who surprised the court last week with a guilty plea and a request for a death sentence, withdrew that plea when questioned further about it and instead pleaded not guilty.
The Vietnamese refugee, who speaks some English but has a court translator, apparently did not understand that Alabama law requires a trial in a capital murder case even when the defendant pleads guilty.
In his note last week, Luong wrote, "I am no longer want to live. But I don't know how to die."
If convicted for the Jan. 7, 2008, murders, Luong could be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. An appeal is automatic.
Attorneys could not be reached for comment on Luong's reversal because they were screening jurors for his Mobile County trial that starts when a jury is seated, possibly by Monday.
Judge Charles Graddick had accepted Luong's guilty plea last week. It was submitted in a letter that is now part of the court record, and prosecutors could use it at trial.
Graddick could have refused to allow Luong to withdraw the guilty plea, attorneys said, but the court is cautious in capital murder cases because of the automatic appeal.
Court officials didn't rule out the possibility that Luong could again change his plea after a jury is seated, but prosecutors still are required to prove their case.
Kam Phengsisomboun, of Irvington, who has served as spokesman for the family of the slain children's mother, said they had no comment on the latest plea development until a jury is seated.
The Rev. Phillip Vo, who has counseled the family, earlier said they were ready to get the trial over and move on with their lives.
Prosecutors claim Luong argued with his common-law wife, Kieu Ngoc Phan, 23, before he drove the family van to the top of the two-lane bridge and tossed the children into the cold Mississippi Sound 80 feet below.
The bodies of the four children — Hannah Luong, 2, Ryan Phan, 3, Lindsey Luong, 1, and Danny Luong, 4 months — were recovered from waters off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana during a search that involved hundreds of volunteers in aircraft, boats and on foot.
Luong came to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was 14. The family was living near the fishing village of Bayou La Batre at the time of the deaths.