The lawyer for a Hmong refugee who is accused of seriously wounding two unarmed correctional officers last month in a shooting inside the downtown Fresno jail lobby said Wednesday that he has hired two experts who will evaluate Thong Vang’s mental health and drug abuse.
Antonio Alvarez, who is a former prosecutor with a successful record as a criminal defense lawyer, said he could not elaborate on any defense for Vang. But a local law professor said Alvarez is setting up a potential diminished-capacity defense.
Alvarez made his intentions known Wednesday at Fresno County Superior Court, where Vang had a status hearing. On Alvarez’s advice, Vang delayed his next hearing until Jan. 10 to allow the experts to examine him. He was then returned to Fresno County Jail, where he is being held without bail. He also has an immigration hold.
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A criminal complaint charges Vang, 37, of Fresno, with the attempted murders in September of officers Toamalama Scanlan, who was shot in the head, and Juanita Davila, who was shot in the jaw.
To be convicted of attempted murder, a defendant has to have a specific intent to kill, said Fresno criminal lawyer David Mugridge, who is a professor at the San Joaquin College of Law.
In specific-intent crimes, such as attempted murder and assault with a firearm, you have to have the capacity to form the necessary intent.
Fresno law professor David Mugridge
Mugridge, who is not associated with Vang’s case, said hiring two experts on mental health and drug abuse clearly sends a message that Alvarez hopes to build a diminished-capacity defense. In general, that defense means that although a defendant broke the law, he should not be held criminally liable for doing so, as his mental functions were impaired.
“In specific-intent crimes, such as attempted murder and assault with a firearm, you have to have the capacity to form the necessary intent,” Mugridge said.
On the other hand, murder requires either an intent to kill or a conscious disregard for life. Therefore, a defendant can be convicted of murder without intending to kill.
If Alvarez is successful, Vang could be found guilty of lesser crimes, such as being in possession of a firearm in a secured facility and simple assault, which does not require specific intent, Mugridge said.
It’s unclear what prosecutors plan to counter Alvarez’s move because the District Attorney’s Office has a policy against talking about pending cases.
Vang has pleaded not guilty to the attempted-murder charges and to being a felon in possession of a gun. If convicted, he faces 110 years to life in prison.
Because he has waived his right to a speedy trial, it is not yet known when he will have a preliminary hearing or a trial.
Sheriff Margaret Mims said Davila and Scanlan were working in the crowded jail lobby the morning of Sept. 3 when they were shot as they tried to escort Vang out of the lobby. Fellow officers rescued the wounded officers and forced Vang to drop his gun and surrender.
Court records say Vang was once a leader in the Mongolian Boys Society, a Fresno street gang that engaged in a sex-slave ring at a local Motel 6 in the 1990s.
Mims has said Vang was released from prison in 2014 after serving 16 years for raping three children ages 12 to 14. After his release, Vang, a refugee from Laos who came to the United States when he was 1 year old, was held in custody for three months while U.S. immigration officials tried to deport him. Laotian authorities, however, never sought Vang’s return, so by law he was freed in December 2014, Mims said.
Since then, Vang’s only run-in with law enforcement, according to court records, was a ticket he received in July 2015 for exceeding the limit in catching striped bass. He was ordered to pay a $100 fine. Before the shooting, Vang was a model parolee who regularly checked in with his parole officer and had a job, Mims has said.
Davila was released from Community Regional Medical Center on Sept. 16. Scanlan remains in critical condition at Community Regional Medical Center, sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said Wednesday.