EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 3, 2012

Skull fracture killed driver

Murder trial expected to be to jury today

By Jill Harmacinski
jharmacinski@eagletribune.com

---- — SALEM, Mass. — Jurors yesterday viewed an autopsy photo showing the 5-inch skull fracture Thu Nguyen, 59, suffered before he died after delivering a Chinese food order near the Lawrence Stadium Housing Projects in 2009.

State Medical Examiner Dr. Marie Cannon said the cause of Nguyen’s death was blunt force head trauma that led to brain bleeding. Ultimately, his brain became so swollen it stopped sending signals to other organs, Cannon said.

Police and prosecutors allege that Ronny Ramos and Daniel Lee Lopez, both of Lawrence, called the Evergreen Restaurant at 105 So. Union St. that night with the intention of robbing Nguyen and stealing the food.

But something went awry, and at about 10 p.m., Nguyen was punched, fell to the ground, and fractured his skull on the sidewalk near the low-income housing development near Lawrence High School. He died the following day at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, leaving behind his wife and three children.

Yesterday was the third day of the trial. On Monday, numerous witnesses called by the prosecution said they could not remember what happened that night or admitted they didn’t want to testify in the trial.

That attitude was prevalent again yesterday, with witness Wainer Caba, 20, of Lawrence, admitting to prosecutor James Gubitose “I don’t want to be here,” while he was on the stand.

Caba also said he felt threatened, feared for his safety and lied when police questioned him about the murder in August 2009.

“You felt the need to say things (a state trooper) wanted to hear to get out of that room,” defense lawyer Aviva Jeruchim asked.

“Yes,” Caba replied.

When questioned by Jeruchim, Caba later agreed he “repeated the same lies (he) adopted the first time around” when he testified before the Essex County Grand Jury, which indicted both Ramos and Lopez.

Cannon was the final witness in the prosecution’s case against Lopez, 24, who is charged with Nguyen’s first-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and unarmed robbery, and Ramos, 20, is also charged with unarmed robbery.

One defense witness is expected to testify this morning, followed by closing arguments. Judge David Lowy told jurors yesterday to expect to start deliberating the case today by at lunchtime.

As a medical examiner, Cannon, a doctor since 1980, said she investigates the manner and cause of death, conducting both external and internal exams on a deceased person. Cannon said she found a black and blue on the inside of Nguyen’s right eyelid. She also detected “two distinct areas of trauma” on the right back side of his head and his left temple. The 5-inch fracture was on the right side of his skull, Cannon said.

Prosecutor James Gubitose posted an autopsy picture showing the fracture on a large movie screen set up in the courtroom. Nguyen’s wife and other relatives sat in the gallery behind the screen, but they could not see the picture.

When asked by Gubitose, Cannon said other than the head trauma, there were no other contributing causes to Nguyen’s death.

Under questioning by Jeruchim, Lopez’s defense attorney, Cannon said Nguyen did suffer from cirrhosis of the liver and also had a surgical procedure in his stomach area after suffering from gastric cancer.

Jeruchim also asked Cannon about the presence of benzodiazepines, a prescription narcotic used in Valium, Xanax and sleep aids, that was found in Nguyen’s urine.

Benzodiazepines can effect a person’s protective reflexes and coordination, Cannon said, when questioned by Jeruchim.

However, Lowy had jurors removed from the courtroom, while he questioned the attorneys and Cannon himself about the benzodiazepines issue. Cannon said the narcotic is drug many “take on a daily basis and function” and she did not know if the narcotic was something prescribed to Nguyen or administered in the ambulance after he was injured.

She also said such a “low level” of the drug was found in Nguyen’s urine she did not order further testing.

No further questions about benzodiazepines were asked in front of the jury and Cannon was excused from any further testimony.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.