The California Supreme Court upheld death penalties today for two men who murdered a 73-year-old grandmother while holding other family members hostage in their San Jose home in 1991. Stephen Hajek and Loi Tan Vo were both 18 at the time of the murder of Su Hung, who had come from Taiwan to visit her daughter’s family.
The family included a 16-year-old granddaughter who had recently fought with another girl who was a friend of both men. Prosecutors alleged the pair planned to kill other family members and then the granddaughter in revenge. Hajek and Vo arrived at the family’s house on the morning of Jan. 18, 1991, and held various family members hostage for several hours while awaiting the return of the granddaughter, who never arrived because she had skipped school that day.
Hajek had a pellet gun and Vo at one point held a knife to the throat of the victim’s daughter. Su Hung, who was 5 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed 87 pounds, was tied up and gagged by Vo and taken to a second floor bedroom. After police arrived and ended the siege, she was found to have been killed by a combination of having been strangled with a cord and slashed in the neck with a knife.
Su Hung was also found to have suffered several nonlethal wounds, including stabs on her shoulder and chest and a beating bruise on the chin, at least some of which occurred before she died, according to medical testimony at two men’s trial in Santa Clara County Superior Court in 1995. Family members testified that both men separately visited the second floor several times during the siege. Blood found on a glove used by Hajek was consistent with Su Hung’s blood.
Both men were convicted by the trial jury of first-degree murder with special circumstances of lying in wait and torture, as well as attempted murder of four other family members, kidnapping and false imprisonment. The two special circumstances justified a possible death penalty, and both defendants received that sentence after a penalty trial. The state high court, in an opinion issued in San Francisco, unanimously upheld both men’s murder convictions and Hajek’s death penalty, and affirmed Vo’s death penalty by a 6-1 vote.
The court overturned the lying-in-wait special circumstance, saying there was inadequate evidence that the two men had lain in wait to kill the grandmother, but upheld the torture finding as a basis for the death penalty. Justice Marvin Baxter wrote in the majority opinion that there was ample evidence that both men had torturous intent, and said the jury could have concluded that both participated in the series of wounds.
Baxter wrote that the nonlethal injuries inflicted before Su Hung died “evidenced deliberate and gratuitous violence beyond that which was necessary to kill the victim, and the jury could reasonably infer from the circumstances that the wounds were inflicted to cause her severe pain while she was bound, gagged and utterly helpless.” In a partial dissent, Justice Joyce Kennard said she believed there was evidence to convict Vo of first-degree premeditated murder, but insufficient basis to find that he personally inflicted the wounds and therefore intended to torture.
Vo, who testified in his own defense at the trial, maintained he did not kill Su Hung and had accompanied Hajek only for the purpose of frightening the granddaughter. Hajek, who did not testify, argued through his lawyers and witnesses that he lacked the intent to murder because he suffered mental illness that included a form of bipolar disease and the effects of alleged abuse before he was adopted at the age of two. Today’s state high court decision was the first step in the lengthy death penalty appeals process in California. The two men can now continue appeals through habeas corpus petitions in the federal court system.
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