September 20, 2005

Boston Chinatown massacre trial starts

By Jason Szep

BOSTON (Reuters) - Two ethnic Vietnamese accused of
murdering five men in Boston's Chinatown went on trial on
Tuesday, seven years after an international manhunt ended with
their arrest in China.

Nearly 15 years after the fatal point-blank shootings in
the basement of a Chinatown after-hours social club, one of the
city's bloodiest murders, the two suspects appeared for the
first time before a Boston jury.

Siny Van Tran, known as "Toothless Wah," and Nam The Tham
have each pleaded not guilty to five counts of first-degree
murder in the predawn massacre, which shocked Boston's
gang-infested Chinatown in 1991.

"It was one of the worst, most violent days in the history
of Boston," Assistant District Attorney John Powers told the
courtroom during opening arguments, adding that one survivor,
Pak Wing Lee, and the club's operator identified the two men.

The trial is expected to take up to three weeks.

Illustrating growing U.S.-Chinese cooperation, China
returned the two men to the United States in 2001. Tran was
arrested in the city of Dongxing and Tham was picked up in
Shenzhen, both on other charges, and both in 1998.

A third suspect remains a fugitive.

China has no extradition treaty with the United States, and
Boston officials said it was initially unclear whether the two
would be returned.

A former Massachusetts prosecutor who was involved in the
case, Ralph Martin, told The Boston Globe the talks between
U.S. investigators and Beijing over returning the men took
place "at the stratospheric level."

Citing Lee's account, Powers said the victims begged for
their lives after the three drew guns and shouted "robbery" in
the basement gambling den. Each man was shot at tight range,
either in the temple or forehead or base of the skull.

Lee thought he was spared until a gunman walked over and
shot him in the head. The bullet fractured his skull but did
not pierce his brain. When he regained consciousness, Lee
dragged himself over a blood-soaked floor and up a staircase
and then called for help through a door.

"He talked to police before surgery and after surgery,"
Powers said, indicating that Lee's testimony would form a
crucial part of the prosecution of Tran, 48, and Tam, 46.

Tran's court-appointed lawyer Robert George questioned the
credibility of the two witnesses. He said Lee had been in a
street brawl years before with one of the alleged shooters, and
the other, the club's operator, had changed his statement since
1991, when he told police he was not at the club.

"Many people escaped when the shooting went on, and one of
them was Siny Van Tran," George said.

The trial also illustrated deep changes in Boston's
Chinatown, a web of narrow roads and restaurants where police
have cracked down on gangs, purging much of the 5,000-strong
community of the gang violence that had plagued the bustling
area for decades.