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Two plead guilty in shooting

Third suspect in drive-by case pleads not guilty

By Dawn Schuett

schuett@postbulletin.com

A day in court originally set aside for legal arguments in a murder case turned out to be one for plea agreements.

Defense attorneys for Samphan Roeun, 21, of Minneapolis, Viengvilay Phetsomphou, 20, of Rochester and Michael Emmanuel Hughes, 21, of Minneapolis, previously intended to make their arguments Wednesday on motions to dismiss the grand jury indictment and murder charges against the three men.

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In March, an Olmsted County grand jury returned indictments, charging all three with first-degree premeditated murder, second-degree murder and attempted first and second-degree murder in the shooting death of Samoeun Sam, 19. They also faced seven charges alleging the crimes were committed for the benefit of a gang.

Two of the men, Roeun and Phetsomphou, decided Wednesday to enter guilty pleas in their cases. Hughes pleaded not guilty.

Relatives and friends of the defendants and victim waited in the courtroom almost two hours while Phetsomphou -- the first defendant to appear before Judge Joseph Chase -- met with his lawyer, William Gatton of Minneapolis, to consider a plea agreement.

Once in the courtroom, Phetsomphou said he wanted to plead guilty to second-degree murder in the course of a drive-by shooting and then answered questions from his attorney, the prosecution and the judge about the facts surrounding his involvement.

Phetsomphou admitted he was drinking at a party at the Chieng Mai Thailand restaurant in the early morning hours of Feb. 24. While at the restaurant, a fight broke out between some of his friends and others at the party. One of his friends was jumped and beaten up at the party, Phetsomphou said.

After the fight, Phetsomphou went back to the house he shared with his girlfriend. His friends, including Roeun and Hughes, came to the house.

There, Phetsomphou and his friends talked about getting revenge on the group they fought with at the restaurant.

Phetsomphou said he rode with his girlfriend, Roeun and Hughes in Roeun's car to a house at 5250 Kingston Place N.W., where they believed they could find the group from the restaurant.

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Roeun, who was driving, parked the car across the street from the house, Phetsomphou said. Roeun and Hughes got out of the car and Phetsomphou said that's when he realized Roeun had a gun.

"I heard the gun click," Phetsomphou told the judge, referring to the noise made when the gun was cocked.

Phetsomphou said he knew Roeun was likely to use the gun but Phetsomphou did not leave. He and his girlfriend were sitting in the back of the car on the way to the house and moved to the front seat after Roeun and Hughes got out of the vehicle, Phetsomphou said.

He said he heard Roeun fire the gun. Immediately after the shooting, Roeun and Hughes jumped in the car and Phetsomphou drove away.

Samoeun Sam, who had been hit in the chest by a gunshot, lay in front of the house.

He died at the scene. A 22-year-old man, identified by the initials K.S. in court documents, was one of two people sitting in another car parked across the street from the house. He suffered a head injury when shots were fired into the car.

Phetsomphou drove to the parking lot of Wal-Mart and he and his girlfriend got out of the vehicle and went inside the store. Roeun and Hughes stayed in the car, Phetsomphou said.

Phetsomphou was arrested by Rochester police later that morning. Hughes turned himself in to police two days later. Roeun was arrested in Minneapolis five days after the shooting.

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Jim Martinson, head of the criminal division of the Olmsted County attorney's office, asked Phetsomphou if he understood the significance of his guilty plea.

"You're just as guilty as the person who actually pulled the trigger," Martinson said. "Do you understand that?"

Phetsomphou said he did and that he was pleading guilty because he was guilty of the offense.

In the plea agreement, the defense and prosecution jointly recommended a prison sentence of 20 1/2 years. The 13 other charges in the indictment against Phetsomphou, including those alleging the crimes were committed for the benefit of a gang, will be dismissed.

Roeun, accused of being the one to fire the gun, entered an Alford plea Wednesday afternoon in court to attempted second-degree intentional murder and an amended charge of second-degree intentional murder in the course of a drive-by shooting. With his plea, Roeun didn't admit guilt but he agreed that a reasonable jury could find him guilty of first-degree murder charges with evidence that existed.

During questioning by his defense attorney, Evan Larson of Austin, Roeun said witnesses saw him with a gun the night Sam was killed. Witnesses also saw him in the area where the shooting occurred. Roeun admitted his DNA was found on the gun used in the shooting and that other evidence existed against him.

The sentencing recommendation in the plea agreement is for 13 1/2 years on the charge of attempted second-degree intentional murder and 25 1/2 years for the charge of second-degree intentional murder. The sentences would run consecutively.

Roeun could be eligible to petition for parole after serving 30 years.

Sentencing for Roeun and Phetsomphou is set for Oct. 31. A settlement conference for Hughes is scheduled for Nov. 15.

Martinson declined to comment on the plea agreements because of the status of Hughes' case. Sandy Cookman, Sam's foster mother for more than two years, also declined to comment on the cases.

After the court proceeding for Phetsomphou, Gatton said it was in his client's best interest to make a plea agreement.

"I believe that the settlement of the case was fair and just," Gatton said.

It takes into account that Phetsomphou played a minor role in the crime, he said.

"He (Phetsomphou) feels bad that Samoeun Sam was killed and he recognizes that he shares responsibility," Gatton said.

With the sentence recommended to the court, Phetsomphou could be eligible for release in 13 years. The sentence would allow Phetsomphou a chance to live a productive and meaningful life after his release, Gatton said.

He said his client is young and amenable to rehabilitation.

Although authorities alleged that Phetsomphou, Roeun and Hughes were members of the Baby Gangster Crips, Gatton said Phetsomphou has always maintained he is not a gang member.

The three defendants met as boys through church activities while growing up in Minneapolis, Gatton said.

His client did not have a previous criminal record, and at the time of the shooting Phetsomphou was living with his girlfriend and had a job, Gatton said. "Sometimes, the question can be asked, 'What really is a gang?'"

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