SANTA ANA – Believing that a teenager involved in a shootout with Fountain Valley police officers was mentally ill, an Orange County jury has found him not guilty of charges that he attempted to kill a policeman in the December incident.
The panel of three men and nine women found David Vinh Dinh not guilty Friday afternoon of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer, burglary and false imprisonment.
Jurors instead found Dinh, who was 17 at the time of the incident but was charged as an adult, guilty of lesser charges, including attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm.
Superior Court Judge Gary Paer will sentence Dinh on Sept. 9, when he faces anywhere from 4½ years to 16 years in prison, his attorney said.
Had he been convicted on the greater charges, Dinh was looking at a minimum of 45 years to life in prison and would not have been eligible for parole for more than 40 years, defense attorney Lew Rosenblum said.
"This means the potential that he could be out in five to seven years as compared with looking at the rest of his life; that's huge for me," said Rosenblum on Monday. "The fact that he could still have a life rather than having to go through parole hearings is a major accomplishment."
Deputy District Attorney Lynda Fernandez could not immediately be reached for comment.
The defense offered a "potpourri" of defenses, hoping something would stick with jurors, she said in her closing argument in the case.
Rosenblum told jurors in closing arguments that the prosecutor "gambled" in a case that was not provable. She gambled with his client's life, he said.
"There's just so much doubt in this case that you cannot find him guilty of anything except of false imprisonment," he told the jury.
His defense: Dinh was a bipolar 17-year-old and on the day of the incident thought he was on a CIA spy mission.
An exchange of gunfire at an apartment complex in which Dinh fired four shots – one as a warning and the other three into the ground – from an AK47 occurred not because he wanted to kill anyone, but because he felt threatened and wanted to get away.
The prosecutor told jurors that Dinh, now 18, knew exactly what he was doing, was lucid, armed himself with the assault rifle to shoot and kill a police officer, was not mentally ill and just because he did not hit an officer does not mean he's not guilty.
"Defendant's actions and words prove he intended to kill when he shot at (Fountain Valley police) officer (Richard) Nilos," she said. "Just because they're throwing up this bipolar flag doesn't mean ... you have to buy into a bunch of baloney. ... Bipolar does not equal not guilty, it's not a get out of jail free card."
"Nobody is asking for get out of jail free card, all I am asking is for a fair trial," countered Rosenblum, saying from a police radio transmission and prior contact with his client, officers knew they were dealing with someone with a mental illness. "The prosecution had a trial strategy here, but it backfired on them ... to keep this mental health issue from you."
Police said at the time Dinh fired a weapon at them after threatening a resident in his home.
The exchange of gunfire took place while officers were responding to a burglary in progress report at the Corte Bella apartments in the 9600 block of El Rey Avenue.
Officers met with a resident who reported that the teen had forced his way into his apartment and was armed with a handgun, which turned out to be an airsoft gun.
Inside the home, Dinh found a weapons cache and picked out the biggest gun, the assault rifle, and contemplated his situation, prosecutors said.
He opted to engage officers, Fernandez said, because he told investigators in an interview he figured at that point he had already committed a felony by breaking and entering and brandishing his airsoft gun and would end up in Juvenile Hall for six months.
Officers set up a perimeter around the complex. Before they could contact the teen, he came out of the apartment with a rifle and ignored officers' demands to drop the firearm, police said at the time.
The prosecutor said he fired at least four shots at police, including Nilos, who thought he was going to be killed.
Four officers were involved in the shooting, police said then, but the teen fired only at one of them.
"The jury believed and understood my client thought that the person hiding behind the tree (at the complex) wasn't a police officer and was the occupant of the house," Rosenblum said.
Dinh underwent surgery for multiple gunshot injuries – he was struck by more than 30 shotgun pellets. No officers, neighbors or bystanders were injured.
"The jury understood that his mental illness was legitimate and it impacted his ability to form the intent that the prosecutor alleged, the intent to commit the crime of murder" and other charges, Rosenblum said.