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2 women to stand trial in nightclub killing

  • Marisol Meza

  • Vanesa Zavala, left, and Candace Brito attended a preliminary hearing in the West Justice Center on Tuesday in Westminster, Calif. Brito and Zavala are charged with the murder of Annie Hung Kim Pham. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Mark Boster, Pool )

  • Candace Marie Brito arrived for a preliminary hearing at the West Justice Center in Westminster, Calif. on Monday. Brito and Vanesa Zavala are charged in the beating death of Kim Pham in front of a Santa Ana nightclub. (AP Photo / Los Angeles Times, Mark Boster, POOL).

  • Vanesa Zavala arrived for a preliminary hearing at the West Justice Center in Westminster, California on Monday. Zavala and Candace Marie Brito are facing charges in the beating death of Kim Pham in front of a Santa Ana nightclub. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Mark Boster, Pool)

WESTMINSTER, Calif. » Two women accused of pummeling and kicking a 23-year-old woman during a fight outside a California nightclub that was captured on cellphone videos were ordered Tuesday to stand trial on murder charges.

Vanesa Zavala and Candace Brito have pleaded not guilty in the death of Annie Hung Kim Pham, who was taken off life support after the fight outside the Santa Ana bar-restaurant in the early morning hours of Jan. 18.

Prosecutors allege that Brito twice punched the left side of Pham’s head as she scrapped with Brito’s friend and then kicked Pham twice in the head after she fell to the ground and kept fighting.

After Brito was pulled away, Zavala stepped in and kicked Pham once more in the head with her booted foot, prosecutors told the judge. After that kick, Pham immediately lost consciousness, Orange County prosecutor Tony Pino said.

"It’s very clear on the video," Pino said outside court. "Videos don’t lie."

The forensic pathologist who conducted Pham’s autopsy ruled the cause of death was blunt force injury to the head. But she testified that it was impossible to tell whether one specific blow caused the fatal brain bleeding and swelling, or if it came from all the blows in combination.

Police played three cellphone videos of the fight during the preliminary hearing and are still trying to identify dozens of witnesses seen in the footage.

They also want to question a third woman, identified only as "Amelia" in court, who was fighting with Pham on the ground when she was kicked.

The woman has obtained a lawyer and hasn’t returned calls from police.

Just who started the fight was in dispute during the hearing, with various witnesses describing different scenarios.

Pham and her group of 11 friends were waiting in line to get into the club as Brito, Zavala, the woman identified as "Amelia" and two men were exiting.

At some point, the groups bumped into each other.

One witness told authorities Pham started swearing and threw the first punch. But Pham’s friends told police the three women in the other group attacked Pham without provocation after they bumped into her.

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

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

They also picked at the police investigation, pointing out that detectives have not identified another woman who can be seen kicking at "Amelia" as she struggles with Pham on the ground.

"That night at The Crosby was a powder keg … and that powder keg exploded and, if nothing else, in the past few days we’ve seen Ms. Pham is the one who lit the match," Michael Molfetta, Brito’s attorney, said outside court.

"Given the murder cases I’ve tried over the years — and there have been a lot of them — I like these facts," he said.

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 in an hour-long recording.

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 told Navarro to stop her testimony after she acknowledged going undercover after Zavala had already requested a lawyer.

Another hearing was set for Feb. 21.

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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