Inside Report: Linh Nguyen case complicated

After reading about convicted killer Linh Nguyen’s fight for freedom amid immigration problems, Baton Rouge lawyer Jeri Flynn has a little bit of advice for him: Get a good lawyer.

“(Nguyen) definitely needs a competent immigration lawyer to deal with ICE,” Flynn said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Nguyen’s main problem — besides obtaining most officials’ support but so far not Gov. Bobby Jindal’s on early release from a manslaughter sentence — is that ICE plans to deport him back to his native Vietnam even though he was living the American dream until a robber entered his family’s store. The question becomes how likely, or unlikely, Vietnam is to welcome him back.

For Nguyen, his best hope is that the U.S. determines Vietnam will never agree to accept him or Jindal decides to pardon him. Flynn said a full and unconditional pardon would wipe out all effects of his conviction, including his deportation upon release from prison. President Barack Obama also could magically erase Nguyen’s problems.

Nguyen is the son of Vietnamese immigrants who came to the U.S. as political refugees in 1993. Within six years of the family’s arrival, they were entangled in the Louisiana criminal court system.

The Nguyens built a life in Baton Rouge. They saved enough money to buy a convenience store. If they did not know the store — a former Circle K on Plank Road — was in a rough neighborhood when they signed the closing papers, they soon figured it out.

On Jan. 4, 1999, Nguyen’s father, Sang, stationed himself at the front door of his convenience store. It was closing time, and he acted as an armed sentry to ward off anyone kicking around thoughts of robbing the business. Inside the store, Marcus Ventress paced through the few aisles and gathered items that he placed on the counter before asking Nguyen’s wife and son, Linh, for two bottles of cognac. Ventress abandoned everything but the cognac, grabbing it and racing out the door to his truck.

What happened next would be dissected by police, attorneys and jurors in the coming months. It was an emotional case. Ventress had past brushes with the law. Linh Nguyen had a smattering of a college education, no criminal record and told a compelling story about springing to his father’s defense in a panic-stricken moment of confusion.

Uncoiling from his post at the door, Sang Nguyen gave chase, the pursuit largely invisible to those inside the store because of security shutters. Shots rang out. Linh Nguyen, just six weeks shy of his 27th birthday, jumped the counter, ran into parking lot, fired his own gun and pulled his father back into the store.

Eighteen bullets were fired — all from guns owned by the Nguyens. A bullet from Linh Nguyen’s gun struck Ventress, who was not armed, in the head and killed him.

A jury convicted Linh Nguyen of manslaughter and acquitted his father of an attempted murder charge. Linh Nguyen got a prison sentence while his parents returned to running the family store.

As Jindal contemplates whether to release Linh Nguyen early from prison, the U.S. is working to deport Nguyen, sending him back to a country in which his father was held captive at a North Vietnamese prison camp. He wants to stay in the U.S., where he hopes to relieve his now elderly parents’ burden of running the family store in Baton Rouge.

The U.S. also tried to deport Kestutis Zadvydas. Zadvydas is a convicted drug offender whose parents were Lithuanian. He was born in a German camp for displaced persons. His wife is Dominican. Lithuania, Germany and the Dominican Republic all said no thanks when the U.S. tried to deport him. Zadvydas’ predicament helped spark a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined convicts cannot be locked up indefinitely when there is no significant likelihood of deportation.

At times, the ruling has come back to bite the Supreme Court, as it did when Vietnam refused to welcome back Binh Thai Luc after he did time in the U.S. for robbery and assault. Six years after Luc was ordered deported, he allegedly killed a family of five in San Francisco, possibly over a gambling debt.

Linh Nguyen’s post-prison life looks to be more promising. He obtained an accounting degree through correspondence courses in prison. He told state officials a few years ago that his parents’ only hope was for their children to have a bright future.

“I am deeply sorry that this unfortunate event ever occurred, especially the fact that a life was lost, something that can’t be replaced. I never intended for this to happen,” Nguyen wrote.

Michelle Millhollon covers the Governor’s Office for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. Her email address is mmillhollon@theadvocate.com