LOS ANGELES (AP) — One of two men charged in the 2012 fatal shootings of two Chinese graduate students pleaded guilty Wednesday to two counts of first-degree murder and was immediately sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Bryan Barnes, 21, also admitted the special circumstances of multiple murders, murder during a robbery, and that he personally fired a gun, killing the students, the district attorney's office said. Those circumstances could have brought him the death penalty if he was convicted.
By pleading guilty, Barnes avoided a possible death penalty trial.
Ming Qu, 23, and Ying Wu, 23, were shot to death on April 11, 2012, as they sat in a car about a mile from the University of Southern California, where they were engineering graduate students. Police said the shooting was linked to a robbery, possibly of the victims' cellphones.
Before the punishment was announced, the fathers of both victims addressed the court through Chinese language interpreters about the loss to their families.
Their grief was palpable as they spoke of two brilliant young people who came to the United States to gain an education that would enhance their lives in their home country.
Wanzhi Qu, father of Minh Qu, described his son as a straight-A student gifted in piano and vocal performances and able to write Chinese calligraphy with both hands simultaneously.
"He was a brilliant young man, ready to chase his dreams and give back to the communities," Qu said. "However, right before he graduates, this ruthless murderer took his precious life, killed his dreams together with our hopes."
He said that the two students, Ming and Ying, were in love and planned to be married.
XiYong, father of the murdered Wu Ying, said her killing "shattered the dream and hope of our entire family into pieces and pushed us into the abyss of endless pain. "
At the recent Chinese New Year, a family festival, he said, "All we could do was to spend it in quietness and tears in front of my daughter's grave."
Both men called for death for the killer.
Barnes was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus to two terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole plus two terms of 25 years to life.
Prosecutor Daniel Akemon also asked the judge to dismiss an unrelated charge of attempted murder that was pending against Barnes.
Barnes' plea leaves co-defendant Javier Bolden, 21, awaiting trial on murder charges. He has pleaded not guilty. A pretrial conference in his case is scheduled for March 21. Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty if Bolden is convicted.
The case has drawn wide international interest. The parents of the students have filed a lawsuit accusing USC of misrepresenting security at the campus, where nearly one-fifth of the 38,000 students are from overseas, including 2,500 from China. USC says it has more international students than any other U.S. university.
USC lawyer Debra Wong Yang said the university was deeply saddened by the deaths but found the lawsuit to be baseless.
The school and city police announced new security measures after the slayings and promised more video cameras, escorts and patrols.