Inmate has support but faces release hurdles

Years after he shot and killed a man in front of his family’s Baton Rouge store, convicted killer Linh Nguyen now has the support of his trial judge, his warden, his pastor, a congressman and the entire Louisiana Board of Pardons in seeking relief on a 25-year prison sentence.

The only supporter he still needs is Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has let the Pardon Board’s unanimous recommendation for immediate parole eligibility sit on his desk for six years without taking action on it.

Jindal’s signature could help spring Nguyen from prison earlier than his 2021 release date.

Then, the Louisiana Department of Corrections cracked open Nguyen’s case last month and noticed something that the Pardon Board missed: Nguyen isn’t a U.S. citizen. Even if pardoned, Nguyen may remain behind bars.

“The Department received new information about his citizenship status and a detainer has been placed on the offender. Given the new information, his file is being sent back to the Pardon Board for review,” the department’s spokeswoman, Pam Laborde, said by email.

The discovery could free the governor of making a decision in a high-profile case that ignited racial tensions between the Vietnamese and black communities. It also puts Nguyen into a whole new quandary.

Nguyen, now 41, attended LSU, speaks English and once worked in his family’s Plank Road convenience store in Baton Rouge. But he was born in Vietnam and apparently never became a U.S. citizen.

In 2013, several years after obtaining the Pardon Board’s support, a frustrated Nguyen contacted the Jindal administration about the status of the governor’s decision on the recommendation. The governor’s executive counsel, Thomas L. Enright Jr., wrote back that “There is no time limitation as to when the Governor makes a decision on a Pardon Board recommendation.”

Nguyen also filed a motion to amend or modify his sentence late last year. A few weeks later 14 years after he went to prison for manslaughter U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed a detainer on him. Upon his release, Nguyen will be turned over to ICE for possible deportation.

“ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators. Aliens convicted of violent crimes and other serious felonies are among ICE’s highest priority for removal from the country,” said Vincent Picard, a spokesman for ICE.

If Nguyen’s native country were Mexico, he would probably leave the U.S. within two weeks of his release from prison. Deportation to Vietnam is a little trickier.

Vietnam has a repatriation agreement for those who arrived in the U.S. on or after July 12, 1995. Nguyen arrived in 1993. His future is clouded.

Even if Jindal grants him parole eligibility, Nguyen won’t necessarily be back behind the counter of his parents’ convenience store the next day. The U.S. will ask Vietnam to accept him. If Vietnam refuses, immigration officials will have to decide whether Nguyen is a security risk. He will sit inside a detention center for up to six months while his future is decided. Even if he is released, he will be under a supervision order.

Nguyen didn’t hide his nationality when he applied to the Pardon Board in 2007. The first line of his narrative states: “My name is Linh Nguyen, and I arrived in the United States from Vietnam in December of 1993.”

The clemency application asked his race, educational level, age and offender class but not his citizenship status. What the Pardon Board saw was a stack of letters in which Nguyen drew diverse support.

Pat Book, warden of Catahoula Correctional Center, wrote in the summer of 2007: “I’ve known Linh Nguyen for seven years and I believe given the chance, he could be an asset to any community. I favorably recommend him for any relief that you could grant him on his sentence.” Book characterized Nguyen as humble, respectful and dependable.

The Rev. Francis Minh Hai Nguyen, pastor at St. Anthony Catholic Church in 2007, wrote: “In my personal opinion, I can guarantee that Mr. Nguyen will not be a threat to society. If released he will be able to continue in the family business and be able to help with his aging parents. He would also be able to continue volunteering here at the church and helping with our youth programs.”

Nguyen was a first-time offender when he fired the gun that hit in Marcus Ventress in the head outside a Baton Rouge convenience store in 1999.

Nguyen and his parents owned the store. Ventress tried to steal from them, grabbing alcohol, hopping in his truck and trying to make a dash for it.

The United Food Mart which Nguyen’s parents continue to operate is in a high-crime area on Plank Road in north Baton Rouge. Guard dogs protect the neighboring electronics store.

It was dark the night of the shooting, near closing time with security doors already drawn over the front windows, when Ventress snatched the alcohol and ran. Nguyen’s father pulled out a gun and gave chase. Gunshots rang out.

Still inside the store, Nguyen jumped the counter and headed out the door, tugging his own gun out of his waistband as he crossed the threshold. More shots rang out. Ventress’ truck plowed into a light pole as he died from the bullet wound.

Nguyen always insisted he fired because he thought his father and Ventress were trading shots in the parking lot. Ventress, as it turned out, did not have a gun. He lost his life over two bottles of cognac.

Earlier this year, from Catahoula Correctional Center, Nguyen reached out to The Advocate after Jindal freed a Lafayette man serving a life sentence for murder.

Nguyen expressed frustration about his own situation. Nguyen’s sister, Cindy, later said her brother did not want to cooperate with an article about his case on the advice of an attorney, whose name she declined to provide. Nguyen’s parents also refused to talk.

Ventress’ mother, Bonnie, now is a widow. She lost her husband two years after their son’s death. She said her husband never got over the loss of their son.

Like Nguyen’s mother, Bonnie Ventress battled breast cancer in the years after the shooting. Unlike Nguyen’s mother, she does not want Nguyen freed.

“This is the holidays, and the holiday has never been the same. Your whole life changes when you have a link that’s broken. I wouldn’t want him to get out because you know why? He shot my son,” she said shortly before Christmas.

Bonnie Ventress said she tries to get into the holiday spirit for her grandchildren including Marcus Ventress’ son because they enjoy the season.

“This is a bad time for me. The holidays are always bad,” she said from her New Iberia home.

Nguyen’s pardon file is thick with accolades and criticism. The district attorney and Sheriff’s Office opposed his release from prison. However, the judge who sentenced him took the rare step of admitting that he would reconsider his decision if he could.

“Mr. Nguyen’s case is one of two cases that on further review, the Court does not oppose another opportunity to reevaluate and reconsider the imposed sentence. However, due to state criminal procedural impediments, this Court is barred from modifying the present sentence,” state District Judge Don Johnson, of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, wrote the Louisiana Board of Pardons in 2007, adding that he was not in opposition to Nguyen’s request for relief from the executive branch of government.

Back in 2009, then-Congressman Anh “Joseph” Cao himself a Vietnam native asked the governor to give some thought to Nguyen’s situation.

“I am actually very familiar with this case, so I write to you today to see if you can help this family move forward and beyond the tragedy separating them,” wrote Cao, R-New Orleans.

Whether Cao’s letter actually reached Jindal is unclear. The governor refused a request by The Advocate to delve into his deliberations concerning Nguyen.

“We are not going to comment on any specific pardon cases. We review pardon recommendations on a case-by-case basis to see how it would impact not just the individual seeking the pardon, but also the victims and law enforcement officials who are involved in the case and the communities where these folks reside,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

Nguyen, who now has a degree in accounting from the Stratford Career Institute and helps run the inmate welfare fund program at his prison, sent a long letter to The Advocate, then asked through his sister that it not be published.

However, a motion he filed recently in the 19th Judicial District Court to amend or modify his sentence is a matter of public record. In the motion he begs the court to place him on home incarceration without making any mention of his immigration issues.

“(I have) the potential to be a productive member of society; a member that has and will pay taxes in the future,” Nguyen wrote.