A murder trial that started Thursday began with a video that showed the killing of 35-year-old Alvin Khamchan inside the MeKhong Restaurant in Fresno during a loud party in November 2011.
The video was so graphic that the victim’s family and friends let out a gasp and cried in Fresno County Superior Court.
For the defendant, 45-year-old Lee Saysanasy, the evidence appeared eerily similarly to another killing in June 1992. Back then, police said, a fight over a woman prompted Saysanasy, then 22 years old, to fatally shoot Sombane Sayasen, 24, inside an Fresno establishment that was called the Mekong Restaurant, located at Kings Canyon Road and Cedar Avenue. Police said the victim was unarmed when he was killed. Initially charged with murder, Saysanasy later pleaded no contest to manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, court records say.
In opening statements Thursday in the latest trial, prosecutor Brian Hutchins said a drunken Khamchan was unarmed when he was gunned down by Saysanasy in front of dozens of people during the early hours of Nov. 13, 2011.
“It’s a straight-forward case,” Hutchins told the jury. “It’s right there on the video.”
But defense attorney Beth Ann Lee said Saysanasy killed Khamchan in self-defense. She also said the video doesn’t show what happened before the victim was shot, when the victim and his friends had threatened to kill Saysanasy. “He believed his life was in imminent danger,” Lee told the jury.
The Superior Court trial before Judge Jonathan Conklinis expected to take two weeks. If convicted of murder, Saysanasy faces life in prison.
Police say the MeKhong Restaurant on Belmont Avenue east of Blackstone Avenue has been the site of several other shootings, including the killing of Albert Thao, 27, in September. The MeKhong Restaurant closed afterward. Since then, a new restaurant has opened in the location.
Saysanasy, who goes by “Sonny,” was a regular at the restaurant. On the night of the shooting, he was throwing a party for family and friends. “He was smiling and having a good time,” Lee told the jury. “He wasn’t looking to get into an argument.”
But during the party, Saysanasy noticed that friends of the victim were in the parking lot putting on bullet-proof vests, Lee said. Someone also had bumped into Saysanasy near the dance floor and told him he was going to be killed, she said.
Sensing trouble, Saysanasy asked security to be on high alert, Lee told the jury.
The video from a restaurant surveillance camera shows Khamchan moving his fingers toward Saysanasy’s eyes and Saysanasy swatting them away. Lee said Saysanasy had to swat the victim’s fingers away twice.
Khamchan then shows Saysanasy the palms of his hands right before he is shot three times at close range, including after he had fallen on the dance floor.
Hutchins said the victim was smiling and drunk when he put his fingers toward Saysanasy’s eyes – imitating the old “Three Stooges” eye-poke gag.
And after Saysanasy swatted Khamchan’s fingers away, Hutchins said, Khamchan made his hand gesture as if to say, “What’s your problem?”
But Lee said the hand gesture meant “Come on, let’s go,” like an invitation to fight.
Lee contended that Khamchan was putting a hex on Saysanasy when he put his fingers to the defendant’s eyes. “The decedent probably never heard of the ‘Three Stooges,’ ” she said in mocking Hutchins’ theory of the case.
Lee also told the jury that when Khamchan put a hex on Saysanasy, he cursed Saysanasy and told him: “You’re dead.”
“He was in imminent fear of his life,” Lee told the jury. “He fired the shots in self-defense.”
To understand Saysanasy’s fear, Lee told the jurors that he grew up in Vietnam during the war. As a young child, he witnessed bombs exploding, shootings and death, she said.
His family fled Vietnam in a small boat, with some relatives having to cling to the side. The journey was so difficult that several family members drowned, Lee told the jury.
“So if someone says they are going to kill you, he takes the threat very seriously,” Lee said.