The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered a new trial for Dung Van Tran, who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for setting his 14-month-old daughter and himself on fire in what he claimed was a failed suicide bid not intended to harm her.
However, the ruling does not set Tran free to await another trial. The ruling only applies to his conviction for assault with intent to murder; his 40-50 year sentences for armed home invasion still stands.
The state's highest court said the judge in the case shouldn't have allowed a psychiatrist who interviewed Tran during his hospital stay to testify on what he had said about the fire, because Tran never attempted to make his mental condition part of his defense - he claimed only that the severe burns on his daughter and two other people were an accidental byproduct of his self-immolation attempt.
Tran, estranged from his wife, showed up at her apartment on Jan. 8, 2007. As their daughter slept in a hammock in the living room, "the defendant raised the can to the height of his shoulder, tipped it, and poured gasoline onto the floor, splattering some on himself, [the daughter's caretaker], and [his daughter]. He then ignited the gasoline with a cigarette lighter, setting all three people ablaze."
His daughter suffered "permanent disfiguring injuries," according to the court, which added that the caretaker's son also suffered burns trying to douse his mother's and the toddler's burning skin. His daughter spent several months in the hospital undergoing a series of skin grafts; Tran himself was put into a medical coma during his recovery.
During his time in the hospital, Tran spoke to a psychiatrist. At first, the judge refused to let prosecutors call the psychiatrist as a witness, because Tran had not claimed mental incompetence as part of his defense. After prosecutors got Tran to acknowledge he'd been thinking of suicide, however, the judge ruled the testimony would speak to his mental state and allowed it:
"The Commonwealth recalled [the doctor], who testified that the defendant told him that his intention on the day of the fire was 'to take [his daughter] with him,' and that the defendant followed that comment by saying, "I could get in big trouble for that." [The doctor] clarified on redirect that the defendant had answered "yes" when [he] asked him 'if he tried to take his daughter with him, did he want her to die, did he want to kill his daughter.'
A jury convicted Tran on several counts, including assault with intent to murder.
But the Supreme Judicial Court said that getting a defendant to admit he'd been thinking of suicide was not enough to break doctor/patient confidentiality; that the defendant would have to make his mental state an integral part of his defense to warrant forcing medical practitioners to testify what he told them.
"The Commonwealth may not introduce against a defendant statements protected by the psychotherapist-patient privilege, on grounds that the defendant himself placed his mental or emotional condition in issue, unless the defendant has at some point in the proceedings asserted a defense based on his mental or emotional condition, defect, or impairment."