Drawing Dead

Tony Tran and Laura Xiong started out as small-time gamblers. Then they became lovers. And then her husband turned up murdered.

Laura Xiong initially refused to testify at Tran's trial. Her lawyer, Earl Gray, told Judge Carolan that she wanted "transactional" immunity, basically a guarantee that she would not subsequently be indicted on charges related to her husband's murder. Gray also wanted any testimony sealed from public view. "That's what concerns me the most. Without a sealed record, my client is walking into being blindsided, because it was even apparent in chambers that Mr. Hersey fully intends to prosecute my client," he told the judge. "They're going to take this young lady, whose husband was murdered, and pound on her in front of the jury, and she really doesn't want to be confronted with that."

Judge Carolan was unswayed by Gray's arguments. Xiong was found in contempt of court and booked into jail. After a brief incarceration, however, she agreed to testify. Xiong admitted before the jury that she'd conducted a lengthy affair with Tran, even acknowledging the she'd had sex with him at her house on the day of her husband's murder.

Hersey: "And you've told the defendant that you love him and you miss him?"

Xiong: "Yes."

Hersey: "And you've talked about your future with the defendant, correct?"

Xiong: "Yes."

Hersey: "And you have an ongoing relationship with the defendant?"

Xiong: "I think so."

Laura continued to insist, however, that the cell phone that had been used to communicate with Tran 32 times on the day of Dao Xiong's murder was never in her possession. She also claimed that Tran had left her house immediately after their sexual liaison on the day of the murder. "He left before I left," Xiong told the jury.

Following Dao Xiong's death, a lawsuit was initiated in Dakota County Probate Court to determine what should happen to the deceased's assets. At issue, mainly, were two life-insurance policies totaling $850,000. An attorney, Christopher Lehmann, was appointed to represent the interests of Dao's descendants. The insurance companies voluntarily relinquished the funds to an account overseen by the Dakota County Court Administrator. As of January, with the accrual of interest, the sum had grown to $901,452.84.

Under the terms of the life-insurance policies, Laura Xiong was the presumed heir. But Minnesota law prohibits anyone who is complicit in the death of a policyholder from collecting benefits. Another attorney hired by Lehmann to assist on the case, James Erickson, initiated proceedings to bar Xiong from receiving any benefits, arguing that she was an accomplice to the murder.

On September 20 of last year, Xiong was slated to testify under oath regarding her husband's murder. But on the day before her scheduled deposition, Xiong's attorneys contacted Erickson and announced that she would not testify. They also informed him that she was giving up all claims to the disputed life-insurance benefits. The next day, under oath, Xiong formally renounced any claim to the insurance windfall. "That's something that she and I made as a tactical decision," says attorney Richard Malacko, who represents Xiong in the matter. "If it's going to go to her children anyway, we didn't see any need for prolonged litigation."

The exact dispensation of the money is still unknown. Presumably the couple's three children, who remain in Laura's custody, will ultimately be the beneficiaries. But one fact is already clear: A substantial chunk of the life insurance money will end up in the hands of lawyers. On April 7, Dakota County District Court Judge Richard Spicer ordered that nearly $200,000 be paid to Erickson's law firm for its work on the case. Lehmann will eventually submit a bill to the court as well.

It's impossible to say whether Laura will ever face charges stemming from the death of her husband. The eight-member jury that found Tran guilty of murder raised the matter with Judge Carolan at the close of the trial. They were told that, at present, there was insufficient evidence to charge Laura. Two years later, it appears that nothing has changed.

"The way it was explained was that unless Tony Tran would cave and speak against her," says Lianne Cero, one of the jurors, "they would not be able to do anything about it."

Another juror, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, was left with a similar impression. "In my opinion the only way she'll ever be charged is if he turns on her," the juror notes. "That may or may not ever happen.... My opinion of him was he was a real gamer and he got caught in his own game."

Part of the problem may be that Laura was granted "use immunity" before testifying in Tran's murder case. Under such an agreement, none of her statements under oath can be used to prosecute her at a later date. "It means basically we're not going to use your testimony against you, but we can still prosecute you," says Barry Feld, who teaches criminal procedure at the University of Minnesota Law School. "Once you've given a witness immunity, it may be very difficult to come up with independent evidence that would enable you to successfully prosecute."

Tran did not respond to two letters from City Pages seeking comment for this article. According to his caseworker at the state prison in St. Cloud, Robert McLellan, he is still exploring options for overturning his sentence and does not want to jeopardize that possibility. On April 20, however, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected his appeal for a new trial, leaving him with very few legal options.

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