A combative cab driver sparred with a defense attorney Wednesday over details in the trial of one of three Orange County Jail inmates who escaped seven years ago.
The rocky proceedings were interrupted several times as Orange County Superior Court Judge Larry Yellin dismissed jurors to remind the witness, Long Ma, that he had to answer questions from the attorneys in the trial of 44-year-old Hossein Nayeri whether he liked it or not.
Ma was especially indignant at being questioned about allegations that he sexually assaulted his wife when they were married and posted nude pictures of her online after their split. The allegations surfaced as his ex-spouse sought a restraining order out of Alameda County, but there were apparently no charges filed against Ma, who was granted immunity in the trial of co-defendant Bac Tien Duong, 50, two years ago.
Duong was convicted in April 2021 for the escape. He was acquitted of felony kidnapping for robbery, but convicted of the lesser charge of simple kidnapping. A mistrial was declared when jurors could not reach a verdict on the car theft. Duong was sentenced to 20 years in prison in July when he also resolved his case of attempted robbery, the charge he was in custody for when he broke out of the jail in Santa Ana.
Co-defendant Jonathan Tieu, 27, is awaiting trial.
Ma, who said he does not speak much English, testified with help from a translator.
When Nayeri’s attorney, Michael Goldfeder, pressed Ma about his immunity agreement in the Duong trial, Ma said, “Why don’t you arrest me and put me in jail?”
Goldfeder responded, “Your wife put you in jail.”
“It’s true, but it has nothing to do with my being kidnapped,” Ma testified.
Ma also rejected the allegation that he sexually assaulted his ex-wife when they were married.
“It was voluntary,” he said. “That was voluntary together… I am not guilty, which is why the court erased everything.”
Ma, who served in the military for 10 years in Vietnam, also bickered with Goldfeder about questions regarding his prior statements in the Duong trial and to authorities about details of the gun he was threatened with by his alleged captors.
“I understand you are frustrated,” Yellin told Ma after clearing the courtroom in the afternoon. “It’s been a long couple of days, it’s been a long couple of years.”
But the judge told Ma, “There are many reasons attorneys may ask you things that are not apparent to you because you don’t know the whole case… I’m going to suggest you calm down… The one thing you can’t do is cut this short by deciding what is relevant. I do that. That’s my job.”
Yellin reminded Ma that his commitment of time to the trial will be shortened if he answers the questions and doesn’t argue about them.
“The lawyers get to ask questions and witnesses have to answer,” he told Ma. “You continue to express frustration and that is not helping you to get out of here.”
Ma complained to Yellin that he thought Goldfeder was doing a poor job of defending Nayeri.
“I was never mad at the defendant,” Ma said. “He is not defending the defendant…. I am frustrated because the person defending the defendant is causing harm to the defendant. He wants the defendant to be in jail for the rest of his life.”
Ma praised Yellin for being “just and fair.”
When Goldfeder continued his cross-examination, Ma said, “I am pleading with you not to ask me any more questions.”
“So you can answer questions — just not from me?” Goldfeder asked.
Goldfeder asked Ma if he kept in touch with Duong and Ma said he had gone to see him behind bars to bring him “Buddhism books” and money.
Goldfeder pressed Ma on testifying in Duong’s trial that Tieu pointed the gun at him, but Ma denied saying that and insisted it was Duong who held him at gunpoint.
“I testified very honestly,” Ma said. “But don’t you be setting me up.”
Ma said he saw the reward for the capture of the escapees rise from $10,000 to $200,000 in news reports while the three were on the lam.
Goldfeder also asked Ma about a trip back home with Duong when Ma said he needed to get his medications. The defense attorney asked Ma if he paid a car insurance bill while at home for about an hour and whether he asked for help from a couple of his roommates who were there at the time.
“I saw the room was completely closed and also Bac Duong was there so I dared not knock on the door,” Ma testified. He assumed Duong had a gun with him but did not see one.
Ma had previously testified he stuffed a note asking for help in a toothbrush holder, but it was never opened.
Goldfeder also questioned Ma about a couple of trips the defendants made to Ross clothing stores.
“They forced me to come along,” Ma said, adding Duong picked out a shirt and jacket for him.
Ma said he did not see any security guards. When asked why he didn’t ask for help from a customer or employee, he said, “I wasn’t afraid I would get shot, but I was afraid someone else would be shot.”
“Did you go up to anyone and say these people are keeping you against your will,” the defense attorney asked.
“No, absolutely not,” Ma said.
When asked if Nayeri helped him get cigarettes, Ma said, “My defendant does not smoke,” prompting a smile and nod back from the defendant.
Duong was the one who fetched a special kind of cigarettes that Ma preferred, he testified.
Ma will remain on the stand Thursday. Two officers from San Francisco were also scheduled to testify.
Deputy District Attorney David McMurrin told jurors in opening statements the inmates forced the unlicensed cab driver to go along with them even after they took his keys, wallet and phone from him so they could use his identification to help them check into motels and retrieve money wired to them by Nayeri’s mother.
At some point Nayeri and Duong got into a fight over what to do with Ma, prompting Duong to take Ma with him when he returned to Orange County in Ma’s Honda Civic to turn himself in. Nayeri and Tieu continued on north in a van Duong stole to San Francisco, where they were arrested, McMurrin said.