AIKEN - Prosecutors opened their case Wednesday against murder suspect James Vang, showing jurors graphic crime scene photos of pawn shop owner Carlton Ennis lying dead in his Aiken store.
The gruesome photos were part of testimony by Paul LaRosa III, a crime scene expert with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Mr. LaRosa told jurors the store owner was found in a pool of blood inside Southside Pawn and Gold Shop on June 23, 1997.
Fingerprints found on the broken glass from a gun case were traced to Mr. Vang, the agent said.
The victim's family members, filling up three rows of the courtroom, could easily see the photographs, and a few looked away as Mr. LaRosa displayed the exhibits.
In opening statements, Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan promised jurors she would present a string of witnesses and evidence that showed that Mr. Vang plotted with three Charlotte friends to execute the pawn shop owner and then steal money and guns from his store.
Triggerman Ae Khingratsaiphon, 20, was found guilty last year and sentenced to life in prison. Getaway driver Curtis Kesl, 22, pleaded guilty and received a 30-year sentence, and co-defendant Kai Yang, 18, awaits trial.
In a surprise move Wednesday, defense attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson admitted Mr. Vang conspired with his friends to rob the store and then kicked in a gun case and stole guns after the shooting. In fact, during opening statements, the attorney told the jury it was their duty to convict his client of those two offenses - armed robbery and conspiracy.
But Mr. Johnson argued against a murder conviction, saying Mr. Vang backed out of the last-minute plan to kill the pawn shop owner. The attorney said his client went into the shop and told Mr. Khingratsaiphon not to go through with the slaying, but his friend did anyway.
"We expect the evidence to show that Ae Khingratsaiphon shot Carlton Ennis and not James Vang," the defense attorney said. "James decided to go back. ... He had decided he didn't want to participate."
The prosecution has argued Mr. Vang knew about the planned slaying and, therefore, is just as guilty of the slaying under state law.
Ironically, Mr. Vang testified against Mr. Khingratsaiphon in a 1999 trial and implicated himself in the plot, but he has since pleaded not guilty and is seeking acquittal on the murder charge. Besides his court testimony, prosecutors are armed with a written and recorded confession by Mr. Vang.
Mr. Vang, who was 15 at the time of the robbery and slaying, faces a life sentence if convicted.
In afternoon testimony Wednesday, Dr. Inas Yacoub, a forensic pathologist from Newberry, said Mr. Ennis was shot in the back of the head and died quickly.
"It was a close-range gunshot wound to the back of the head," she said. "A wound in that location is basically a fatal wound, and that is the cause of death."
Circuit Judge William P. Keesley dismissed a male juror after he was seen falling asleep during testimony. A bailiff informed the court the young man was nodding several times during the testimony of a medical examiner. Judge Keesley replaced the male juror with a female alternate, changing the makeup of the panel to seven women and five men.
The trial continues this morning with more prosecution witnesses.
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.
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