Much to the chagrin of local prosecutors, a man convicted of throwing four children to their death from the Dauphin Island Bridge in 2008 saw his death sentence vacated on Monday.
Lam Luong was accused of throwing the three children he fathered with his wife, Kieu Luong, and her oldest child from a previous marriage off the 100-foot-high bridge on Jan. 7, 2008. The children, who ranged in age from 3 years to 4 months, all died instantly.
Luong was tried and convicted of four counts of capital murder in 2009 and sentenced to death. The conviction was overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in 2013 over concerns of possible jury bias, only to be reinstated by Alabama’s Supreme Court a year later.
After nearly a decade of appeals, Luong’s conviction still stands, but a team of lawyers led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully prevented his execution through a joint motion filed with the Alabama Office of the Attorney General, arguing that an execution would be unconstitutional.
The motion concluded under federal and state law Luong’s IQ is too low for him to be executed — an assertion supported by multiple recent IQ tests and evaluations from experts organized by the ACLU and the attorney general’s office.
Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich told reporters Alabama law defines a person with an “intellectual disability” as anyone with an IQ measured to be 70 or below. After multiple tests given as part of the appeals process, the highest score Luong managed to record was 57.
“Our hands are tied,” a clearly emotional Rich said. “No one deserves the death penalty more than the man who … coldly and calculatedly threw four children off the Dauphin Island Bridge.”
According to Rich, defense attorneys and prosecutors used mechanisms to ensure Luong didn’t intentionally perform poorly on the IQ tests. However, she also noted of the numerous psychologists, attorneys and investigators involved in his original trial, none “gave any indication that [Luong] might be below average intelligence or have an intellectual disability.”
Even though Luong had only successfully achieved a third-grade-level education, Rich said he had a documented history of employment in the restaurant and shrimping industries and was never described by friends, family or former employers as having intellectual deficiencies.
She went on to rehash the alleged motive behind the 2008 killings and quoted some of the testimony from cross-cultural psychologist Paul Nguyen, who testified at Luong’s trial about some of the dynamics in domestic relationships in Vietnamese culture.
Reading from the trial transcript, Rich said Nguyen testified that some Vietnamese women are punished with “extreme emotional torture” if they cause their husband to “lose face.” Luong, she said, killed the children to hurt his wife and took “very clear, purposeful actions” in doing so.
No matter his IQ today, Rich said Luong “is a man who knew exactly what he was doing” then.
“When he got to the top of the bridge, he waited for traffic to pass as he threw each of those children over,” Rich said. “[The lead investigator] asked Luong if he’d thought about killing himself as well, and he said he had thought about it but didn’t do it because he wanted to see his wife’s face when they told her he killed all four of her children.”
Shortly after Rich’s comments, Mobile County Circuit Judge Jim Patterson filed an order accepting the joint motion submitted by Luong’s lawyers and state prosecutors.
Patterson has previously clashed with Luong’s legal team over the use of publicly funded Vietnamese interpreters, and even though he technically is the one who vacated Luong’s original death sentence, he didn’t appear any happier about it than Rich. Patterson said the court didn’t have a choice if the state was “going to roll over.”
He was was direct with Luong when imposing his new sentence of life without of parole.
“I have no doubt that, even with your borderline intellectual disability, you still knew exactly what you were doing the day you threw your children over that bridge, and you richly deserve to die for that,” Patterson said. “But, because we’re bound to follow laws in this country, I have no choice based on the settlement agreement reached between you and the state of Alabama.”
By accepting the state’s agreement, Luong has forfeited any right to appeal his conviction or life sentence in the future unless new evidence is discovered showing actual innocence on his part or his attorneys raise a claim that the court has yet to consider.
Reached for comment, though, Attorney General Steve Marshall expressed a similar view of what he called a “deeply distressing outcome.”
“When Lam Luong callously threw his four innocent young children to their deaths, he committed one of the most despicable and heartbreaking crimes that this state has ever suffered. His horrifying actions warrant the most severe penalty our justice system can provide — that he be put to death,” Marshall said. “Unfortunately, this became impossible after tests indicated he meets the criteria of intellectual disability to such a degree that he may not be executed under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Akins v. Virginia. Under these circumstances, life imprisonment without parole became the only alternative.”
While Luong’s original conviction and death sentence were handled by Rich’s predecessor, it is one of a number of Mobile County death penalty cases that have been reversed or retried during her tenure. Those results have not deterred Rich, who was identified in a 2017 report as one of the few county prosecutors in the nation who still frequently seeks the death penalty.
“Some people may say this is a reason why we shouldn’t seek the death penalty, but the law is very clear,” Rich said. “My job as district attorney is to follow the law, and I will continue to seek the death penalty in every case where it is warranted.”