By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
The body of meth cook Sonny Nguyen was found on the side of the road in Bankstown in April 2013. He’d been strangled and his arms were bound.
The body of his partner, Thi Kim Lien Do, was found decomposing in bushland in Hoxton Park the following January, with cause of death unknown.
In September 2016, Sydney drug manufacturer Dung Thi Ngo and her associate Kevin Ly were arrested over the killings that were said to have taken place at a Canley Vale home on Beckenham Street on 10 April 2013: the same evening that Nguyen’s body was discovered.
At trial in the NSW Supreme Court in March 2019, two unnamed witnesses – Witness 3 and Witness 4 – gave testimony that Nguyen and Do were brought to the house after Ngo learnt that a quantity of drugs had gone missing from the premises, where Nguyen had been manufacturing them.
Ly and several other unidentified men took Nguyen into the garage of the house. Evidently, Ngo gave the drug cook a chance to tell her where the missing drugs were prior to killing him. But, as he wasn’t forthcoming with this information, the allegation was that Ly then strangled him to death.
According to Witness 4, Do had been taken into a bedroom and tied up as Nguyen was being killed. And while it remains unclear as to how Do was actually murdered, Witness 4 said he and another associate disposed of her body by throwing it over a fence in a secluded place.
Convictions of murder
Both Ngo and Ly pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder, contrary to section 18 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). The maximum penalty for this offence is life imprisonment. And a standard non-parole period (SNPP) of 20 years applied to both these murders.
An SNPP is a reference point or guidepost for the sentencing judge when determining the minimum time a person must spend behind bars before being eligible to apply for release on parole.
In summing up, Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey Bellew gave the jury a Murray direction, which is given when a prosecution’s case rests upon one witness’ testimony. The direction advises caution in considering whether the honesty and accuracy of the evidence is beyond reasonable doubt.
His Honour gave the direction in relation to Witness 4, as it was his testimony alone that directly implicated Ngo and Ly in the murders, as there was no DNA or forensic evidence linking them to the site. And he told the jury it was open to convict if this evidence was supported by the overall case.
The jury found both the accused guilty on two counts of murder on 23 November 2018. And on 6 May the following year, Justice Bellew sentenced the pair to 40 years imprisonment each, with a non-parole period of 30 years.
Leading to conviction
Ngo and Ly appealed their convictions to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal on 11 June this year. They did so on the sole ground that the verdicts were unreasonable and couldn’t be supported by the evidence, which relied on Witness 4, as reliance on Witness 3 had “largely been abandoned”.
NSWCCA Justice Robert Beech-Jones summarised Witness 4’s evidence on appeal. The witness had given a July 2014 statement, and another six days before trial. He also received a guarantee from the NSW attorney general that he wouldn’t be criminally proceeded against over what he revealed.
Witness 4 said he started working for Ngo in 2012, which involved running drugs to Perth. He said he’d found the Beckenham Street house and was on its lease, and he added that Witness 3 had told him the place was for parties, and he was not permitted to enter the garage.
But, under cross-examination, a number of points from Witness 4’s 2014 statement were raised as they conflicted with his version of events at trial, including his knowledge that it was a drug house, whether he lent Ly a samurai sword used to beat Nguyen and the number of perpetrators involved.
Witness 4 agreed that his testimony conflicted with his earlier statement, as, in 2014, he’d noted a fourth assailant holding a knife entering the room where Nguyen was, and that when he walked out of the room where Do was kept a man had commenced suffocating her with a pillow.
Justice Beech-Jones also considered contradictions in Witness 3’s testimony, as well as the independent and forensic evidence. His Honour found that none of this supported Nguyen, Do or Ly ever having attended the Beckenham Street house, “much less that Nguyen or Do died there”.
“There is no forensic evidence linking any of Ngo, Ly, Pham, Witness 4 or Witness 3 to the deaths of Nguyen or Do,” the justice continued, “even though the evidence of Witness 4 suggests that there was at least a reasonable possibility of DNA transference between Ly and Nguyen.”
Then there was testimony of another witness, Shane Roulstone, who’d known both the deceased. He told the court that he recalled Do visiting his house weeks after he’d learnt that Nguyen was dead.
Do’s mobile phone records also showed someone had received a number of text messages on the device six days after she’d supposedly been murdered. And one of these texts was from Witness 4.
However, Justice Beech-Jones pointed out that Roulstone’s evidence was not conclusive and nor did it rule out a guilty verdict.
Acquitted of murder
“When confronted with a case that depended on an acceptance of Witness 4’s evidence as ‘honest’ and ‘accurate’, any reasonable jury must have entertained a reasonable doubt about the applicants’ guilt,” Justice Beech-Jones ruled last Friday.
And as the Murray direction called for a finding that was “beyond reasonable doubt”, the guilty verdict was questionable as it was based on the evidence of Witness 4, who apparently couldn’t remember who he’d lent a murder weapon to and that he’d witnessed a woman being suffocated.
“I am satisfied that the ‘jury, acting rationally, ought nonetheless to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to proof of guilt’,” his Honour outlined on 19 November.
“I would grant leave to both applicants to raise their ground of appeal, allow the appeals and enter acquittals on both counts.”
And NSWCCA Justices Murray Gleeson and Richard Cavanagh agreed with his Honours orders to quash the murder convictions.