WESTMINSTER, Calif. - A 23-year-old newlywed who died after being punched and kicked outside a California nightclub had bleeding across most of her brain, bruised eyes and legs and had been struck at least five times on her head and face, a forensic pathologist testified Monday at a preliminary hearing to determine whether two women should stand trial in the case.
Annie Hung Kim Pham's brain was "markedly swollen," although she had no skull fractures, said Dr. Eoti Davenport, a pathologist with the Orange County sheriff's department who conducted the autopsy. She had bruising behind her left ear, on the right side of her head, on her forehead and in her eyes, as well as smaller contusions on her legs.
Vanesa Tapia Zavala, 25 and Candace Brito, 27, have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in Pham's death. They listened to the testimony silently after the bailiff removed their handcuffs.
Pham was taken off life support after the Jan. 18 altercation outside a Santa Ana night spot called The Crosby.
Davenport said the autopsy was limited because she could not examine Pham's internal organs, which were donated.
The cause of death was blunt force injury to the head, she said. Davenport also said tests taken at the hospital indicated Pham was intoxicated at the time, but the coroner's office is still awaiting formal toxicology reports.
Pham was with a group of friends waiting to get into the club shortly after midnight when she got into a shouting match, and then a fight, with a group of three women exiting the club, police have said. Several bystanders took cellphone videos of the fight, and police are still investigating a third woman as a person of interest.
One of the first officers at the scene testified Monday that when he arrived, Pham was lying unconscious on the ground outside the club, with her head just a foot or so from the curb.
Officer Gerardo Corona said three people from Pham's group, including her ex-boyfriend, gave witness statements at the scene. All three said Pham was standing in line when one of the women bumped into her and then "two to three females immediately began attacking Ms. Pham," Corona said.
One witness told police Pham and the woman argued for a few seconds before the first woman punched Pham and then two more women joined in, knocking her to the ground where one of the women kicked her in the head, he said.
A homicide detective, Patricia Navarro, said another witness who came forward several days later identified Zavala in a photo lineup as one of the three women.
Defense attorneys argue Pham threw the first punch, however, and on cross-examination challenged testimony that indicated Pham was attacked with no provocation. Kenneth Reed, an attorney for Zavala, introduced the idea that Pham's friends — the only witnesses to speak with police at the scene — might have minimized their involvement in what was a bigger fight.
"Did any of them tell you that Ms. Pham told ... the female that bumped into her, 'Hey, watch where you're going, and I want an apology,'" Reed asked Corona, the police officer.
"You just kind of took the story — 'She got beat' — and you just kind of took the statements of these friends of hers?" he asked. "Fighting means fighting, more than one person fighting, right?"
Pham, who went by the first name Kim, graduated from Chapman University last year and would have celebrated her first wedding anniversary last week. She was an aspiring writer whose work was published online and in an anthology of works by Vietnamese-American writers. One of her essays dealt with her grief at losing her mother to breast cancer when Pham was 5.
The Crosby is the cornerstone of an area of Santa Ana that has undergone rapid urban gentrification, with live-work lofts, bars and trendy restaurants popping up along several blocks alongside a largely working-class and immigrant downtown core. Police and attorneys have denied early allegations that racism or gang conflict were behind the fight.
Late last month, police said they were having trouble finding some witnesses who were with Pham that night and blamed the slow investigation in part on a suspicion of government figures that still abides in some pockets of the Vietnamese immigrant community here. Orange County, where the beating occurred, is home to the largest group of Vietnamese outside Vietnam.