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More time allowed to present death penalty case in officer’s slaying

Updated February 3, 2023 - 7:30 pm

A judge on Thursday allowed prosecutors more time to decide whether to seek the death penalty for a man charged with fatally shooting a Las Vegas police officer.

District Judge Tierra Jones moved the hearing for 24-year-old Tyson Hampton to Feb. 16 when charges would be read formally and he would likely enter a plea.

Jones put off Hampton’s arraignment after Chief Deputy District Attorney Giancarlo Pesci said his office plans to present the case to a death penalty review committee on Feb. 9.

Hampton is charged with murder, attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon in the killing of Officer Truong Thai, a 23-year veteran cop who died on Oct. 13 when a bullet fired from an AK-47 pistol went through his bulletproof vest after he responded to a domestic dispute.

The defendant appeared in court wearing jail attire at Thursday’s brief hearing. He is being held without bail at the Clark County Detention Center, according to jail records.

Pesci said after the hearing that Hampton’s defense lawyers may attend the death penalty committee hearing and offer arguments, or mitigations, in favor of their client on why he should not face capital punishment in Thai’s death.

“That day the defense attorneys are provided with the opportunity, as a courtesy, to present any mitigation they want,” Pesci said. “If they want to they can. Some do, some don’t.”

“The defense can file an intent to seek more time” and request a delay of up to six months under rules set by the state Supreme Court, he said.

Under state law, NRS 200.033, prosecutors can choose the death penalty when a case of first degree murder includes one or more “aggravating” circumstances listed in the statute, Pesci said.

One potentially aggravating factor is if the murder “was committed upon a peace officer or firefighter who was killed while engaged in the performance of his or her official duty or because of an act performed in his or her official capacity, and the defendant knew or reasonably should have known that the victim was a peace officer or firefighter.”

Lance Maningo, Hampton’s co-counsel, said he and defense lawyer Robert Langford plan to attend the committee’s proceeding next week and offer their reasons why the death penalty should not be sought against Hampton.

The defense would likely learn of the committee’s decision at the Feb. 16 court hearing, Maningo said.

“The case is so new. We only learned today that the state is taking it to the death penalty committee,” he said, adding that with so little time to prepare “it doesn’t allow for a full mitigation effort.”

District Attorney Steve Wolfson will make the final decision after the committee makes its recommendation, Pesci said.

Officer spoke with suspect before shooting

On that October day last year, officer Truong Thai had responded to a call from Hampton’s wife who alleged that her husband was beating her. Thai arrived at the scene near South University Center and East Flamingo Road, where Hampton was sitting inside a car.

Thai tried to interview Hampton, who refused to answer. Hampton then allegedly picked up an AK-47 pistol from the passenger seat and as he began to slowly drive away, pointed the firearm outside the window and fired 18 rounds behind him, police said.

Thai was hit once in his side. The bullets also struck Hampton’s mother-in-law and her vehicle.

Thai and another officer shot back at Hampton, without striking him. Officers soon captured Hampton and placed him into custody.

Thai was mortally wounded, as one round pierced the officer’s bulletproof vest. He died at a hospital about an hour later. He had been a 23-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department.

‘What was going on in his mind, to fire, to kill?’

In the hallway outside the courtroom, after watching Hampton enter and leave during the hearing, Truong Thai’s father, Quang Thai, 87, sister Daisy Luu, 54, and son-in-law Kiet Ma, 54, were visibly upset.

“He feels terrible,” said Ma, translating responses to questions for Quang Thai, who does not speak English. “Just look at the person, you feel, that question is, why? What was going on in his mind, to fire, to kill?”

“As a father, you know how he feels about his children,” Ma said. “When we see him, it just brings back those memories.”

Luu said Truong Thai was only two years from retirement, enjoyed working the graveyard shift and trained many young officers.

“It just depends on the judge to do the right thing,” Luu said. “Because my brother did a good thing, for 23 years. To me, to us, I think (Hampton) should be punished for the rest of his life, so he doesn’t come out here and hurt somebody else.”

The officer’s death sparked debate over the effectiveness of the police department-issued vest he wore, a IIIA model that can protect against .357 or .44 caliber rounds but not rounds from the AK-47 pistol allegedly used by Hampton.

An AK-47 pistol fires a 7.62x39mm round and “provides all the power of a rifle cartridge in a super compact design that’s easy to control,” according to machinegunsvegas.com, the website of a gun range at 3501 Aldebaran Ave.

Contact Jeff Burbank at jburbank@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0382.