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July 24, 2014

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2 women to stand trial in Calif. nightclub killing

WESTMINSTER, Calif. — Two women were ordered Tuesday to stand trial on murder charges after a beating outside a nightclub took the life of a 23-year-old California woman.

A judge ruled there was enough evidence to try Vanesa Zavala and Candace Brito.

Both defendants have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the death last month of Annie Hung Kim Pham.

Just who started the fight outside The Crosby is in dispute.

A witness told authorities the fight began after Pham started swearing at a group of people and threw the first punch.

Pham's friends countered that three women in the other group attacked Pham without provocation after they bumped into her.

The ruling came after a preliminary hearing that featured cellphone videos of the melee.

One video shows Pham wrestling with another woman on a sidewalk. As they struggle, a woman in a white blouse, black jacket and boots approaches and appears to kick Pham in the head.

Prosecutors say the kicker is Zavala. Immediately after the kick, Pham goes limp and the clip ends with her friends lifting her by her arms as they try to carry her away.

Other footage appears to show Brito kicking Pham as well before Brito is knocked to the ground by another woman.

Police are still seeking to interview a third woman, identified in court testimony as "Amelia," who they say is the person wrestling on the ground with Pham when she is kicked.

Zavala told police that Pham's first swing hit her and the fight began.

Defense attorneys have repeatedly indicated that Pham's friends might have minimized her role in the fight and their involvement.

They have also been picking at the police investigation, pointing out that detectives have not positively identified another woman who can be seen on video kicking at the woman who is fighting Pham.

"You don't even know who that person is, do you? You don't even know if she's in any way connected to Ms. Pham, do you?" Brito's attorney, Michael Molfetta, said to Santa Ana police Detective Leo Rodriguez during the hearing.

"You haven't investigated it because you've decided those two are guilty of murder and everybody else is a victim. That's why you haven't followed up on this, isn't it?" Molfetta said to Rodriguez, who denied the statement.

Lawyers for both sides reached an agreement about how to handle testimony from a homicide detective who went undercover while wearing a wire and got Zavala to talk about the fight.

The attorneys accepted as evidence for the preliminary hearing only that Zavala told Detective Patricia Navarro, "'She hit me first. I acted in self-defense.'"

On Monday, Judge Thomas J. Borris ordered Navarro to stop her testimony after she acknowledged going undercover as an inmate to record Zavala after she had requested a lawyer.

Pham, who went by the first name Kim, graduated from Chapman University last year and would have celebrated her first wedding anniversary last month. She was an aspiring writer whose work was published online and in an anthology of works by Vietnamese-American writers.

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