Man who killed wife in 2009 gets up to life in prison
Chin raised, eyes narrowed, Votha Choun moved with purpose Monday morning: to stand before a judge and ask that his mother's killer never be allowed from behind bars.
As he neared the lectern, Votha Choun glared at Dennis Lambdin, 64, who stabbed his mother 19 times, bludgeoned her to death with a ceramic ball and then blamed the woman for driving him to kill.
"If he was a good man, like he said he was," Votha Choun told the judge, "he wouldn't have killed her."
On Monday, 3rd District Court Judge Vernice Trease sentenced Lambdin to serve 15 years to life for the murder of Touch Choun in the couple's Cottonwood Heights home in 2009.
An independent board will determine how much time Lambdin will ultimately spend behind bars. But even the minimum 15 year sentence could turn into a life sentence for Lambdin, a diabetic who is in failing health.
It was a long-awaited resolution for Choun's friends and family, but also for those who worked on the case. Prosecutor Fred Burmester told the court Monday that blaming the victim for her own murder as was done in Lambdin's trial was uncalled for and frustrating.
"The defendant stabbed his wife 19 times. He killed her ... and yet it's her reputation dragged through the mud," Burmester said. "She had a life marred by violence. Who are we to stand here in judgment of her?"
Hearing someone defend his mother's character before the judge gave Votha Choun a "sense of peace" he hasn't felt in years, he said.
His mother was not perfect, he told the court, but she was loving.
Touch Choun, a Cambodian refugee, gave birth to five children. Her firstborn died of sudden infant death syndrome days after she brought the infant home from the hospital. The mother blamed herself for the baby's death.
She turned to alcohol to ease her suffering, her son said.
"It's not wrong to feel pain," Votha Choun said. "It's not wrong to want to make it go away."
She lost custody of her other children Votha and his three younger sisters but never stopped caring for them.
When Votha was 14, he moved in with his mother and her new husband, Lambdin.
"I don't know what made [Lambdin] say he was a nice, loving person," Votha Choun told the judge. "Because that's not how I remember it."
Votha Choun recounted years of violence and verbal abuse. He said living with his mother and stepfather made for the worst four years of his life.
"The only thing that kept me sane were the moments I had alone with my mother," he said, pausing to take a steadying breath. "I felt like we were going to get through it together."
Lambdin, who remained silent throughout his three-day trial, spoke briefly Monday to apologize to Votha and the rest of his family.
"I just want to tell Votha and his family how sorry I am," Lambdin said. His voice shook. "I have to live with this for the rest of my life."
Votha Choun, a University of Utah student, said Lambdin's apology changed little.
"I will never forgive him," said Votha Choun in a phone interview after the hearing. "He did what he did and he tried to blame it on everyone but himself."
Lambdin was found guilty by a jury after three days of testimony in January. The jury determined Lambdin intended to kill his wife of nine years, and rejected the defense's claim that his actions were the result of a strained mental state and prolonged abusive relationship.
In the time since, Lambdin's attorneys have asked the court for a new trial, arguing that jurors did not understand the instruction that would have allowed them to find Lambdin guilty due to extreme emotional distress, a condition that asks whether a "reasonable person" would lose control and commit an act that would otherwise be out of character.
"They came to this verdict based on a misunderstanding of the law," argued defense attorney McCaye Christiansen. "
The judge ruled no error had been made in the trial. The judge also ordered Lambdin pay $7,000 in restitution.
No family or friends in support of Lambdin attended Monday's sentencing.
After the hearing, Votha Choun walked out surrounded by supporters and attorneys. He walked hurriedly past several news organizations who stood in the courthouse halls with cameras at the ready.
All he wants now, Votha Choun later said, is to move on.
"I don't always have to want justice for my mother's death every day," Votha Choun said. "Now, with this behind us, we can stop mourning her death and start appreciating, celebrating her life."