Judge Orders Women to Stand Trial in Fatal Nightclub Beating

Two women are accused in a fatal beating outside a nightclub in Santa Ana last month

A judge on Tuesday ordered two women to stand trial in a Southern California bar beating that left a 23-year-old woman dead.

Vanesa Tapia Zavala, 25, and Candace Marie Brito, 27, both of Santa Ana, are accused in the Jan. 18 beating of 23-year-old Annie Hung "Kim" Pham outside The Crosby Bar and Nightclub.

Pham was taken off life support and died two days later.

Zavala and Brito, who have pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, are scheduled to be arraigned Feb. 21.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Borris found sufficient evidence for the women to stand trial, despite arguments by defense attorneys that police rushed to judgment and had not yet interviewed a third "person of interest" in the case.

But defense attorney Michael Molfetta, who represents Brito, said it's not murder, but manslaughter because it was carried out in the heat of a fight.

"It was a powderkeg. That powderkeg exploded and, I think, if nothing else, we've proven in the last two days that Miss. Pham lit the match," Molfetta said after the hearing. 

At the center of this case is a blurry cell phone video that the defense says proves Pham threw the first punch, a point prosecutors say doesn't matter.

Molfetta also contended that the lead investigator on the case, Santa Ana police Detective Leo Rodriguez, had not taken adequate steps to contact the remaining person of interest, who was identified in court as Amelia Avila.

He sarcastically suggested that Rodriguez use the State Bar website to find her attorney and chided him for trying to find her at home in the middle of the day.

Borris' ruling came at the end of an eventful two-day preliminary hearing that was briefly halted Monday when Detective Patricia Navarro testified that she wore a wire and posed as a jail inmate to get Zavala to discuss the attack.

After the revelation, Borris met with attorneys privately and sent Navarro home for the day. In court today, both sides stipulated that when Navarro was undercover in the jail, Zavala told her only that Pham hit her first and she was defending herself.

NBC4 Wire Services contributed to this report.

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