SANTA ANA, Calif. – Orange County prosecutors Wednesday released a report clearing deputies of any criminal wrongdoing in the strangulation murder of an inmate at the hands of his cellmate nearly six years ago.
In a letter dated Feb. 9 to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, prosecutors concluded that charges should not be filed against the deputies who put 27-year-old Danny Viet Pham, who was about to be released on a joyriding charge, in the same cell as Marvin Magallanes, who was sentenced last year to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Pham and two transients in Anaheim.
The report comes after a preliminary report from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office in May 2018 that also cleared deputies of criminal wrongdoing.
In 2019, Pham’s family settled a federal lawsuit with the county for $2.75 million.
Magallanes killed Pham while they were locked up together July 3, 2017. Pham had pleaded guilty in his case and was about to be released July 10, 2017.
Pham had told jail personnel multiple times he was homeless and it was known at the time they were housed together that Magallanes was in jail on suspicion for killing homeless victims, according to the report from prosecutors.
On June 4, 2017, Magallanes attacked a deputy, triggering a fight that was broken up by another deputy. The fight was documented, but not given to deputies who classify where inmates should be held and was not noted in his file, according to prosecutors.
According to the report, “a jail incident report should have been written and provided to classification. An incident report is the only mechanism in place to inform deputies.”
On June 22, 2017, Magallanes was housed with another man, who complained Magallanes “made sexual advances toward him, and (the cellmate) wanted to avoid a fight,” so he asked to be separated from him, according to prosecutors.
A deputy asked Pham if he would move into Magallanes’ cell. The deputy did not know why Magallanes was in jail, “and had no knowledge that Magallanes had assaulted another inmate and a deputy,” prosecutors said.
The deputy later “checked on Pham and Magallanes and both gave him a thumbs up,” prosecutors said.
“Other inmates stated Pham shared he was homeless on multiple occasions,” prosecutors said. “Pham was described as fragile, good and did not have problems with anyone. Magallanes was described as out of it and `not there.’ No other inmates noticed a problem between Pham and Magallanes.”
Magallanes, who had been convicted of stalking TV personality Kylie Jenner before the killings, has been diagnosed as schizophrenic and his attorneys argued at his trial he believed Jenner was directing him to kill the homeless men in Anaheim.
On the day Pham was killed, jail logs “indicated that safety checks were conducted at 7:55 a.m., but video surveillance showed that no deputies or jail staff entered Sector 1 from 7 a.m. to 8:44 a.m.,” prosecutors said. “Safety check records indicated that checks were also done at 9 a.m. and 10:05 a.m., but video surveillance showed that no safety checks were conducted at those times.”
A check later confirmed no safety checks were done at those times, prosecutors said.
Pham is seen exercising in his cell at 7:23 a.m. via video surveillance before Magallanes grabbed him from behind in a chokehold, prosecutors said. Pham is then pulled out of view.
Video surveillance shows Pham face down on the bottom bunk bed at 7:37 a.m. with Magallanes covering him with a sheet, prosecutors said.
Magallanes emerged from his cell later that morning to meet with his attorney, but deputies did not realize Pham was dead until they came to bring lunch, prosecutors said.
When Magallanes was questioned later that evening he said about his cellmate, “We do pretty good,” prosecutors said. When asked to explain what was captured on video, he replied, “Cameras lie.”
Attorney Michael Guisti, who handled the family’s lawsuit against the county, told City News Service, “You’ve got an organization centered on public safety and the reason we do classification (of inmates) is protection. Everything that goes into that funnel of information is important and when it doesn’t go into that funnel it’s like not checking the safety on a gun.”
Guisti said he finds it difficult to believe that any deputy wasn’t aware of Magallanes’ reputation before the two were housed together.
“You can’t tell me that nobody in that module didn’t know about Magallanes,” he said. “They know his charges. They know he’s got two murders… It was general knowledge Marvin Magallanes was dangerous and Danny Pham was at-risk.”
But even if prosecutors wanted to file charges they couldn’t because the statute of limitations had likely lapsed, Guisti said.
Chapman University law school professor Mario Mainero said prosecutors made the right call.
Mainero pointed to the fact that even if deputies had done the hourly safety checks they wouldn’t have interrupted the attack.
“Had the deputies kept the required hourly schedule they would not have been present” for the killing, Mainero said. “I would concur in the DA’s findings. What really happened here was systemic negligence.
“The failure to communicate information to the deputies in that section of the jail, that module, that’s not criminal negligence. That’s just negligence, which does create civil liability, but it does not create criminal liability to the deputies in that area.”
Mainero prepared a report to Orange County supervisors after the beating death of John Chamberlain in Orange County Jail in 2007 and recommended criminal charges for some deputies on duty. None of the deputies ultimately were charged.
Mainero said he has been highly critical of Orange County sheriff’s officials and how they run the jail.
“I’ve always had this criticism of the sheriff in the jail. I’m not convinced they do as good a job as they could watching things,” Mainero said. “But the deputies were not provided information (in Pham’s case) that would have heightened their duty. That’s the real problem here. They would have logically treated this like every other inmate in that module.”
The Sheriff’s Department issued the following statement:
“OCSD continually makes every effort to house individuals safely. In 2019, OCSD implemented a new objective classification system, and has safely housed hundreds of thousands of inmates entrusted to our care.”
Magallanes is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Pham and 52-year-old Onosai Tavita and 49-year-old Sabah Alsaad.