Man acquitted of murder after spending 3 years in jail

LARGO — A St. Petersburg man charged with murder was acquitted by a jury over the weekend.

Chung Nguyen, 29, was charged with second-degree murder in the Feb. 2, 2005, death of Phong Bui, 30. Pinellas sheriff's detectives said Nguyen shot Bui during a fight outside the Thang Thao Vietnamese restaurant in the 5900 block of 34th Street N in St. Petersburg.

Nguyen was arrested two months later after he returned from a trip to Vietnam. He told detectives the shooting was in self-defense.

Nguyen, a father of two boys, sat in the Pinellas jail for three years awaiting trial.

Jurors heard four days of testimony. Defense lawyer Haydee Oropesa said she began her closing argument about 11 p.m. Friday. Jurors began deliberations after midnight and came back with a verdict about 6 a.m. Saturday.

Oropesa said Nguyen, who has no previous criminal record, was trying to break up a fight at the restaurant. He feared people involved in the fight might come after him, so he got a gun from his car. When he saw a group coming toward him, he told them to go away, then fired into the crowd and ran away, Oropesa said.

Oropesa said Nguyen feared he could be convicted and sentenced to life in prison, so she offered prosecutors a deal of 15 years in prison. She said prosecutors turned her down.

Oropesa, who had never before tried a murder, was assigned the case when she was an assistant public defender.

She left to go into private practice in 2006 and advised Nguyen to stay with a more experienced lawyer at the Public Defender's Office.

But Nguyen's family wanted to hire her. They scraped together $14,000, which she took to represent him even though she said she put more than $50,000 of work into the case.

"From Day 1, I have always believed my client," Oropesa said. "He always was consistent. I never had a problem where he would tell me one thing one day and another thing the next. My belief is the jury did the right thing, and an innocent man was found not guilty."

Oropesa said sheriff's detectives jumped to conclusions during their investigation.

"The investigation was incredibly, incredibly shoddy," she said. "It is frightening that a thorough investigation wasn't conducted, especially when someone is accused of this type of charge, and especially when they tell you they have acted in self-defense. That's a bit problematic and disturbing."

Sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said the detectives stand behind their investigation.

"Our folks believe they investigated this incident aggressively and correctly, and if the jury saw it another way, then that was the jury's decision," Pasha said.

Man acquitted of murder after spending 3 years in jail 05/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 2, 2008 4:25pm]

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