Two mothers sat in the courtroom, just feet apart, wearily bearing a strain of distinctly different types of grief for their lost sons — one a 9-year-old murder victim, the other accused in the random killing while he may have been under a cloud of mental illness.
The mental state of Nhan L. Tran, the 34-year-old man charged with killing Devin Aryal in a random shooting rampage in Oakdale on the evening of Feb. 11, was the subject of a brief hearing Monday in Washington County District Court. The hearing was one of several steps to determine how mental illness might figure into Tran’s trial for the six felony counts against him.
“He stole my son’s life,” said Missy Aryal, who sat in court behind Tran’s family. She was there, she said, as “my son’s voice. He was my everything.”
She had picked up her Oakdale Elementary fourth-grader from day care just after 6 p.m. and was heading home on Hadley Avenue near 7th Street N., when shots from a 9-millimeter pistol burst through their minivan in the dark, hitting her son in the head and her in the arm. Tran, who lived with his family just a block away, is charged with the boy’s murder.
Another motorist, Karen Knobloch, lost part of a finger after she was wounded while driving with her three grandchildren. Two other motorists narrowly avoided being struck in the hail of gunfire from the heavily armed Tran, charges say.
Missy Aryal’s grief is laced with anger. She said she feels only hatred for Tran. “I just hope [his mental state] doesn’t give him a lighter sentence,” she said. “It would be nice if we had a death penalty.”
The Tran family, in their first public statement, shared their anguish both for the Aryal family and their own son’s long struggles with mental illness.
“We wanted to let the family of little Devin know that we are mourning along with them in the loss of their son,” it said. “This tragic event has torn apart our family, and our hearts hurt for you and the others who were injured.”
The Trans, who declined to comment further, described their son and brother as tormented by paranoid delusions of being systematically stalked. Court documents say he told investigators he shot randomly at the vehicles because people had stopped in front of his house and revved their engines.
“He has no idea who they are or why they are doing this to him, he only knows that he is being targeted and has not been able to lead a normal life since this started,” the family said, adding that they tried to get him help, but couldn’t afford it and have no health insurance. The courts might get him the help he needs, the family said.
That issue is far from settled, however.
Tran, who is being held in the Washington County jail in lieu of $2 million bail, has undergone one evaluation concluding two things: that he is not mentally competent to participate effectively in his own legal defense, and that his reasoning was so defective that he could not tell right from wrong. The latter would set up a rarely used insanity defense.
But prosecutors requested, and were granted, a second evaluation by a different psychologist as allowed by law. That review will either affirm or dispute the initial findings, and the results will be the topic of another hearing on May 10.
Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said after the hearing that his prosecution team “vehemently disagrees” with the findings of Tran’s initial evaluation, prompting the request. Details of the evaluation are sealed by law.
Washington County District Judge Gary Schurrer granted that request, but took under advisement a request from public defender Susan Drabek that Tran be moved to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter for the evaluation. Tran is on suicide watch at the jail, Drabek said, but a hospital setting would be safer and less traumatizing. Orput said Tran had recently been hospitalized at Regions Hospital in St. Paul but could not legally disclose the reason.
Drabek said a rigorous mental illness defense is being prepared on Tran’s behalf. “At this point, I think we have to,” she said. Tran, who lived a very secluded life, is struggling to comprehend all that is happening in the case.