SAN JOSE -- Louis Vuitton purses are beyond popular in Silicon Valley, where the distinctive leather bags made by the French fashion house can be seen dangling from the arms of many women, and are particularly popular in certain parts of the Asian community.
Now, the prized status symbol is playing a central role in a San Jose murder trial.
Both the defense and prosecution agree that a white monogram "LV" bag, typically worth about $2,000, triggered an argument that eventually led Peter Shui to stab his mistress -- more than 11 times.
But Shui, 50, has pleaded not guilty by reason of (temporary) insanity to killing his mistress Stella Zheng. However, his attorney Rod O'Connor has chosen to reserve any insanity argument to the second phase of trial. In the current first phase -- called the "guilt'' phase -- the lawyer is arguing only that the jury of eight women and four men should convict Shui of either voluntary "heat of passion'' manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. For the latter, the panel would have to agree Shui was too intoxicated after drinking at least two bottles of wine and possibly popping a sleeping pill (he can't remember if he actually did) to form the intent to kill. Depending on the verdict, Shui may decide not to proceed to the second "sanity'' phase of trial.
In contrast, prosecutor Erin West contends that Shui wasn't blind drunk because he is an alcoholic with a high tolerance for alcohol and that he killed Zheng on purpose.
According to court testimony, the killing was touched off by a chance encounter in August 2011 between the younger, pretty mistress and Shui's wife Mei. The two women ran into each other at a shopping center in Saratoga or Cupertino.
"She (wife Mei) sees this woman (Zheng) with a designer bag and automatically suspects Peter bought it for her," said defense attorney Rod O'Connor during his closing argument in Shui's murder trial Thursday.
Enraged because Shui is an unemployed gambler who can barely support his family, Mei berated Shui over the purse. But Shui pointed out that Zheng, 34, purchased it herself; she regularly bought luxury bags from Louis Vuitton and Chanel and resold them for a profit in China.
By late that evening, the married couple were at home and getting ready to bed down in separate bedrooms -- as was long their custom. Then Zheng phoned and Shui agreed to have her pick him up at his house and bring him to her apartment.
When they arrived, Zheng began hurling vicious insults about Mei and Shui's mother. Shui went into the kitchen and got a knife, came back and warned Zheng that if she didn't stop, he'd kill her. When she didn't, he stabbed his girlfriend repeatedly, landing three killing blows and at least eight other wounds.
Neighbors overheard the argument -- and heard Zheng moaning for up to 15 minutes -- but no one called police. Shui was the one who called 911 to report he'd killed his girlfriend, but not until an hour or so later. By then, Zheng had bled to death.
The jury has a choice of either acquitting Shui or convicting him of any of the following homicide-related charges: first-degree murder, as West argued, or second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter. Depending on the verdict, the sentences range probation to about 25 years to life.
If the case were to proceed to the sanity phase and the jury found he was insane at the time of the crime, he would be sent to a state mental hospital for an indefinite period of time.
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.