TAMPA — After Cuc Thu Tran, a 50-year-old Seffner mother of three, was raped and fatally stabbed in September 2007, her killer set fire to her body inside a stolen van. The fire, a prosecutor said Monday, was the killer's attempt to destroy evidence that could lead to his execution.
But in opening statements for the death-penalty murder trial of Kenneth Ray Jackson, the prosecutor said a key piece of evidence was found "where the flames couldn't reach."
The evidence was DNA — "the very essence" of Jackson — Assistant State Attorney Scott Harmon told jurors. "It was the evidence this rapist-murderer was so desperately trying to get rid of."
So began a trial that is expected to last at least three weeks and involve about 50 prosecution witnesses.
Jackson, an unemployed ex-convict who is now 30, is charged with first-degree murder, sexual battery with a deadly weapon, arson and grand theft.
There are no eyewitnesses. Tran, who was among thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" who made their way to America after the Vietnam War, was jogging in the dark at 5:30 a.m. near the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church on County Road 579 in Seffner when she was attacked.
Jackson lived about 100 yards from her trailer in the Grand View Mobile Home Park. He has denied knowing her.
In Monday's opening statements, Jackson's attorneys did not detail their defense for jurors.
But before the trial, attorney Greg Hill told the judge that Tran's widowed husband could make "a viable, alternative suspect."
Months after the murder, Tran's husband cut ties with his three sons. But he has never been charged with a crime.
On Monday, prosecutor Harmon described painstaking detective work — and a bit of luck — that led to Jackson's arrest.
After grass cutters found Tran's bloodied clothing at the Catholic church, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies set up a traffic stop on County Road 579, hoping to find motorists who had seen something.
It produced no leads. But when a tired detective stopped by a nearby BP station for a cold drink, he met a clerk who said she had heard about the murder from a frequent customer named "Kenny."
The customer talked about a stolen van and a spot in Gibsonton where the van was found on fire, details that hadn't yet been released.
"That is how the case broke," Harmon said.
Detectives tracked Jackson, who had recently finished a four-year prison sentence for grand theft, to the small Panhandle town of Carrabelle, where he had moved a few days after Tran's body was found.
In four hours of taped interviews that jurors will hear, Jackson denied any involvement.
But he allowed the detectives to take a saliva DNA sample.
Harmon said the DNA matched a semen sample found in Tran's body.
Jackson was then brought back to Hillsborough.
Harmon portrayed Tran as a struggling mother who worked six days a week as a nail technician at the Brandon mall.
Her oldest son, 23, lived out of state, but her two youngest sons, ages 16 and 10, "were her entire life," Harmon said.
Her only time to walk or jog was at 5:30 a.m.
Harmon told jurors that Jackson was waiting for her, in a van he had stolen from a nearby auto parts store.
Defense attorney Jennifer Spradley did not respond directly to the accusations in her opening statement, but urged jurors not to let the horrific nature of Tran's death keep them from objectively evaluating the evidence.
"You are not to base your verdict on sympathy," she said.
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]