MOBILE, Ala. – An Alabama appeals court has thrown out the 2009 conviction and death sentence of a Vietnamese immigrant tried for killing four small children by tossing them off a coastal bridge, ruling that publicity surrounding the case made it impossible for the suspect to have a fair trial in Mobile where the crime occurred.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial for Lam Luong, whose wife testified he laughed when he told her their children -- whose ages ranged from 3 years to just 4 months -- would never be found. Alabama's attorney general could appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
The case of Luong, a part-time shrimp boat worker, took odd twists that made headlines right up to the start of his trial. Days before jury selection, Luong said he wanted to plead guilty but he ended up withdrawing that decision. The trial judge denied requests by Luong's defense lawyers to move the trial outside of Mobile County.
"It is clear that publicity surrounding the murders completely saturated the Mobile community in 2008. A great deal of that publicity was prejudicial," the appeals court said in its ruling Friday. "... Luong was denied his constitutional right to an impartial jury. Therefore, we must reverse Luong's convictions and sentence of death and remand this case for a new trial."
Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich and a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Luther Strange did not immediately return phone calls Saturday.
Greg Hughes, Luong's lead defense attorney, applauded the decision.
"Maybe this will save his life," Hughes said. "I don't know how this will come out down the road. But he's certainly better off than he was."
At the trial, Hughes told jurors that Luong was on drugs in January 2008 when he threw the children from the Dauphin Island bridge into the Mississippi Sound more than 80 feet below. Three of the children were Luong's while the other was his wife's from a prior relationship.
The bodies of all four -- Ryan Phan, 3, Hannah Luong, 2, Lindsey Luong, 1, and Danny Luong, 4 months -- were later recovered along the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and even Louisiana, where Hannah's body was found 144 miles from the bridge. Autopsies found the children were all alive when they were tossed off the bridge.
Their mother, Kieu Phan, testified at Luong's trial that their relationship soured when they moved from Alabama after Hurricane Katrina demolished Bayou La Batre on Aug. 31, 2005, and relocated to Hinesville, Georgia. She said Luong had begun using crack cocaine and had a girlfriend, so she moved with her children to Mobile. Luong followed and had been unable to find work, she testified.
The Alabama appeals court ruled that the trial judge should have allowed Luong's attorneys to individually question jurors about their knowledge of the case before the trial. The appeals judges said 139 out of 156 prospective jurors who completed questionnaires for jury selection said they had heard about the case -- and 38 of those said they had heard Luong confessed or tried to plead guilty.
The court's decision said all 12 jurors who convicted Luong had heard of or read about the case. It took them only 40 minutes of deliberating to convict Luong in March 2009.
The appeals court ruled the trial judge also erred by refusing to grant Luong's defense team $7,500 to travel to Vietnam to investigate his childhood and by allowing a videotape to be show to the jury in which a police investigator simulated the crime by tossing four sandbags off the bridge.