In an unusual decision for a defendant facing the death penalty, a convicted murderer who refused to testify in the guilt phase of his trial took the stand Wednesday in the penalty phase – and very well may have talked himself onto death row, his own lawyer said.
Defense attorney William White said in open court before Ronnie Vang testified that he believed his client had an excellent chance of “winning” the penalty phase and getting a sentence of life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty.
White said he advised Vang against testifying in the penalty phase, but that his client ignored him and then got on the stand and said somebody else broke into the home of the victim, Keith Fessler, and shot and killed the 44-year-old musician in his Meadowview area home five years ago.
In his questioning of Vang, White asked his client if he was aware that if the Sacramento Superior Court jury that is hearing the case does not believe him, he’ll probably get the death penalty.
“Yes,” Vang answered.
Just a few moments earlier, White asked Vang why he didn’t testify in his own behalf during the guilt phase of the trial. The defendant told the 12 jurors who will decide whether he lives or dies, “I thought the people were smart enough to flush it out.”
The same jury last month returned first-degree murder convictions against Vang, 32, and his cousin Joson Vang, 27, in the June 23, 2009, shooting death of Fessler during a residential robbery. Ronnie Vang’s conviction came with a special-circumstance allegation that has made him eligible for the death penalty – that he killed Fessler to keep him from testifying against him.
One key witness during the trial, Ying Vue, testified that Ronnie Vang admitted to the killing, telling friends in the hours afterward that he put the gun to Fessler’s head and pulled the trigger while the slain man pleaded for his life.
Vue testified that Vang “forgot to put his mask on” during the robbery and – having just been released from prison four days earlier – he didn’t want to go back, so he “shot the guy.”
On Wednesday, Vang testified that it was Vue who killed Fessler.
Other witnesses during the trial said Ronnie Vang and his cousin showed up the day of the killing at a south Sacramento-area hangout that prosecutors say was used as a dealing point for stolen property. They were driving Fessler’s stolen Honda Element and unloading several guitars taken from the victim’s home.
Joson Vang’s DNA was found inside Fessler’s residence on Carella Drive, and Ronnie Vang was caught on videotape selling the stolen guitars at a downtown pawnshop – walking into the store strumming one of them “like he was on a Sunday drive,” Deputy District Attorney Valerie Brown said in her opening statement Nov. 12.
Vang testified Wednesday he didn’t decide to take the stand during the penalty phase until Tuesday, after he watched Fessler’s emotional family members describe to the jury their sense of loss.
“After seeing the family cry yesterday, I felt like I had to come up here,” Vang told the jury. “I didn’t have to come up here.”
Judge Steve White told Vang he would have an opportunity at sentencing to address the family, but the defendant still insisted – against his lawyer’s advice – on taking the witness stand.
A long-time thief, drug addict and gang member, Vang said he felt he was forced into the thug life as a teenager when he moved from the north area to the south area. He joined up with a gang, he said, when local toughs regularly beat him up at his new school. He said he ran away from home as a kid and lived on the river levees when he first began to use methamphetamine at age 12.
When he was 16, a juvenile court judge committed him to a school in Pennsylvania for delinquents. Vang said he learned to read at the Glenn Mills Schools outside Philadelphia and that he had saved $3,000 from the various jobs he did at the institution by the time he was released at age 19.
Returning to Sacramento after his release from the Pennsylvania facility, Vang said he got a job and was going to community college, but he began using drugs again when he became depressed over a breakup with a girlfriend.
“I was there,” he said. “I could have made it. And then I was lost.”
Vang had been sent to prison a few months before the murder for a parole violation on an underlying second-degree burglary conviction. He testified Joson Vang picked him up at the gate at Folsom State Prison when he was released four days before the Fessler murder.
The defendant said he had several hundred dollars cash on him when he got out of Folsom, including the $200 in gate money the prison system gives to parolees when they are released. He said he and his cousin went straight to an illegal gambling house on 47th Avenue.
The two of them bought and smoked some methamphetamine “probably in the first hour” after his release from prison, he said.
Although Vang denied killing Fessler, he said he still felt responsible for the murder, because on the day of the killing, he had cased out a house next door to Fessler’s and told Vue and another man about it.
Under questioning from Brown, Vang denied that he chose to testify in a bid to gain sympathy from the jury.
“If you want to make up a paper for me to sign to get the death penalty, I’ll do that,” Vang testified.
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.