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Death Penalty Still an Option

Two weeks after Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Leslie M. Alden prohibited the death penalty in the upcoming trial against Dinh Pham, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is still an option.

Pham is charged with the murder of Loan P. Nguyen and the capital murder of her daughter Ashley N. Ton, of Merrifield.

On Jan. 3, 2006, Judge Alden granted Pham's motion to prohibit the death penalty in his upcoming murder trial because his rights were violated under the Vienna Convention. Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. appealed immediately to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Alden's ruling would have precluded prosecutors from seeking the death penalty even if he is found guilty of capital murder, according to the court's ruling on Jan. 19, 2006.

"Judge Alden's pre-trial order not only eliminated one of the statutorily prescribed sentences that could be imposed if Pham is found guilty of capital murder, but her ruling is tantamount to a refusal by Judge Alden to conduct a penalty phase hearing at which 'future dangerousness' and 'vileness' aggravating factors … would be at issue," states the ruling.

Although the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Alden does not have the authority to make sentencing decisions when ruling on a pre-trial motion, she would have the authority to decide whether to impose the death penalty if a jury fixes Pham's punishment at death or if the case is tried without a jury.

During a hearing last Friday in Fairfax County Circuit Court, Alden set March 27 as the new date for Pham's trial.

<1b>— Ken Moore