Originally created 09/06/00

Pawn shop killing trial opens



AIKEN - Opening statements begin this morning in the murder trial of James Vang, one of four youths charged in the 1997 slaying of an Aiken pawn shop owner.

A jury of six men and six women and one female alternate were seated Tuesday afternoon.

The trial is expected to be an open-and-shut case against Mr. Vang, who already implicated himself in the armed robbery and slaying while testifying against a co-defendant last year.

Mr. Vang, 18, is accused of joining three friends in driving from Charlotte, N.C., to Aiken on June 23, 1997, in a plot to rob Southside Pawn and Gold Shop. While inside the shop, shot store owner Carlton Ennis was fatally shot and several guns were stolen.

Mr. Vang, who was 15 at the time, was expected to plead guilty a few months ago but balked as the victim's family stood ready in the courtroom to hear his plea. The teen-age suspect suddenly rejected the prearranged agreement of a 30-year sentence and pleaded not guilty, forcing a jury trial and opening himself up to a life sentence if convicted.

The triggerman, Ae Khingratsaiphon, was found guilty in a 1999 trial and sentenced to life in prison. The getaway driver, Curtis Kesl, pleaded guilty last year and received a 30-year sentence.

In the 1999 trial of Mr. Khingratsaiphon, Mr. Vang took the witness stand and testified that his Charlotte friends asked him to join them in an armed robbery.

"Ae Khingratsaiphon said he was going to go in there and kill the man," Mr. Vang said during his testimony last year. "Curtis said, `Do it.'ƒ"

Inside the store, Mr. Khingratsaiphon walked to the area of the guns, and Mr. Vang and co-defendant Kai Yang went to the poker machines, Mr. Vang testified. When the owner came over and told them they were underage and could not play the machines, Mr. Khingratsaiphon shot the owner in the head, according to Mr. Vang.

"I see Ae Khinratsaiphon come behind the man and shoot him," he testified last year.

Mr. Vang said he walked near the dying shop owner and was supposed to grab his money but didn't.

"I was scared," he said.

On the trip back to Charlotte, Mr. Vang said, his friend bragged about killing the shop owner.

Besides Mr. Yang's testimony, detectives are armed with a confession from Mr. Vang about his involvement.

Although Mr. Vang didn't kill the shop owner, he is accused of participating in the robbery and slaying. Under South Carolina law, a suspect who participates in a crime is as guilty as someone who actually commits the crime, something prosecutors refer to as "the hand of one is the hand of all" theory.

Mr. Vang is represented by Columbia attorney I.E. Leevy Johnson. Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara R. Morgan is prosecuting the case, and Circuit Court Judge William P. Keesley is presiding.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.