Paranoid and high on methamphetamine, a Fresno man didn't intend to shoot two unarmed correctional officers during a gunfight inside the lobby of the Fresno County Jail in September 2016, a defense lawyer said Wednesday in opening statements of the defendant's trial.
But prosecutor William Lacy said the defendant, Thong Vang, 38, purposely shot officer Juanita Davila near her face and officer Toamalama Scanlan in the head and arm.
In Fresno County Superior Court, Lacy gave a blow-by blow description of how a gunfight erupted shortly after Vang fired a round into a window in the jail lobby that was filled with visitors waiting to see inmates.
During the chaos, Vang shot an unsuspecting Davila, who tried to escort Vang out of the jail for being disruptive, Lacy said. Responding to call for help, Scanlan tried rescue Davila by firing a pepper-ball gun and stun gun at Vang, but Vang shot him twice, the prosecutor said.
Vang is charged with the attempted murder of Scanlan and Davila on Sept. 3, 2016. Vang also faces two counts of assault with a semi-automatic firearm and possession of a firearm by a felon because of his prior rape conviction. If convicted, he faces at minimum 50 years to life in prison.
The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.
In his opening remarks, Lacy played a video that he said shows Vang interacting with Davilla right before he shot her. Another video, the prosecutor said, shows Vang holding a gun just before he shot Scanlan, causing him to go into a coma.
Fresno defense lawyer Richard Esquivel told the jury that much of the evidence is not in dispute. But he said a defense expert will testify that Vang's longtime abuse of methamphetamine made him extremely paranoid and incapable of knowing what he was doing.
Esquivel said Vang is expected to testify about why he went to the jail and what happened. In letters to the court, Vang contends he fired in self-defense.
But on the first day of testimony, Davila blew up the self-defense claim, saying Vang shot her with a "black, ugly gun" without provocation. "I heard a gunshot and felt I had gotten shot in the neck area," Davila told the jury, who viewed photographs of her bloody uniform..
The bullet entered the right side of her neck and exited her left ear, she said. After being shot, she slumped to the floor.
She recalled seeing Vang also fall to the floor after getting "tased" by a stun gun. She then heard gunfire, lots of it, she said.
She remembered seeing Scanlan lying on the floor, face down, with blood coming out of his mouth. Davila testified she and Scanlan were dragged out of the lobby by their feet. Vang later surrendered.
Davila told the jury she still hasn't recovered from her injuries. Her jaw is still broken, she has trouble hearing, and hasn't been back to work since she was shot.
Scanlan can't walk, talk or feed himself, Lacy told the jury.
The shooting shed light on the fact that Fresno County correctional officers are not allowed to carry firearms, making them nearly defenseless against an armed intruder.
Lacy said Vang was able to shoot the two officers because the public isn't required to go through a metal detector to enter the lobby. Visitors go through one to visit inmates.
The incident also revealed the difficulties law enforcement encounters in trying to deport an immigrant who commits a serious crime.
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. He was sentenced to prison for raping three children, ages 12 to 14, but was released in 2014 after serving 16 years.
After his release from prison, Vang, a refugee from Laos who came to the United States when he was 1 year old, was held in custody for three months by immigration officials, who tried to deport him,. according to Sheriff Margaret Mims. Laotian authorities, however, never sought Vang's return, so by law he was freed in December 2014, Mims said.
Less than two years later, he was arrested in connection with jail lobby shooting.
In opening statements, Lacy laid out the prosecution's case:
Vang walked up to the lobby counter and said he was there to meet someone. Correctional officer Michael Hanlin told him that he had to go to the back of the line.
Pacing back and forth, Vang waited about eight minutes before he walked toward the metal detector and started a commotion. When Hanlin told him to move, Vang said, "No, I rather go to jail," according to Lacy. Hanlin then called for backup.
Davila was the first to respond. She testified that Vang kept telling her: "I want to get arrested. I want to go to jail."
When she he told Vang he had to leave, he refused. Davila said she then grabbed Vang's arm in an effort to escort him out. She said she wasn't concerned because Vang had nothing in his hands.
By this time, Scanlan and Sgt. Christopher Curran arrived in the lobby..
Then, suddenly, Vang pulled out a gun and fired a shot, causing people in the lobby to scatter and Davila to grab her neck, she testified.
Lacy said Curran used a stun gun on Vang. Scanlan then tried to subdue Vang with a pepper-ball gun and stun gun, but Vang shot him, Lacy said.
Lt. Michael Porter, who was armed, saw Scanlan get shot, and fired five times at Vang, but missed, the prosecutor said. Vang then retreated to a hallway. A standoff ensued as the victims were carried to safety. Vang then surrendered as more law enforcement officers arrived.
Davila couldn't recall how many shots were fired. "It sounded like it kept going non-stop," she told the jury. "It happened very quickly."