Rina Palta / KPCC
USC student Julia Liu speaks with reporters outside L.A.'s downtown courthouse. Liu was a close friend of Ming Qu, who was shot to death April 11, 2012.
Bryan Barnes and Javier Bolden both pled not guilty Wednesday in the April killings of Ming Qu and Ying Wu, University of Southern California graduate students from China.
Qu and Wu were shot to death during a downpour, while sitting in Qu's double-parked car on the 2700 block of Raymond Avenue, about a mile from USC's main campus. Police have described the incident as a "botched robbery."
Police say Barnes and Bolden have also been tied to two other shootings. They face one count each of attempted murder for allegedly shooting a 20-year-old man last December at a party in South L.A. Barnes is also facing additional charges for allegedly firing a semiautomatic weapon at a party, hitting a man and woman and severely injuring them.
Wednesday in court, the two men, 19 and 20, smiled at people seated in the audience and were reprimanded by Judge Shelly Torrealba for not paying attention and talking with one another in a glassed-off area to the side of the courtroom.
"This is a serious matter, you should be taking it seriously," Torrealba said. "There is to be no communication between the two of you."
Members of Bolden's family nodded in agreement as Torrealba refused media requests to tape and photograph the proceedings. Attorneys for the prosecution and defense indicated that identification would be a major issue during the trial, and defense attorneys had argued that flashing pictures of the defendants in the media could bias potential witnesses and jurors.
Media scrutiny surrounding the case was a big topic for the defense. Defense attorneys asked the judge to place a gag order on the district attorney and LAPD, prohibiting them from speaking about the case to the public. They argued that leaks have already damaged Barnes' and Bolden's reputations. Torrealba refused to issue the gag order, saying that prosecutors in the case haven't said anything to the media and that LAPD would have to be present to defend themselves before she could issue a gag order covering police.
Alongside media in the courtroom, a group of international students from USC attended Wednesday's hearing. Among them was Julia Liu, who said she was with Qu when he bought the car that allegedly caught the eye of his killers.
Liu said it was hard to see the defendants in court.
"Actually I feel a bit nervous, because it's going to make me recall," she said. "Also, I saw those two guys' family and mom and maybe sisters or brothers. I also feel sad for them. It's going to be sad for four families."
The victims’ families live in China; they’ve sued the university, claiming that it misled prospective students about how safe they’d be in the United States.
Liu said she knew little about the lawsuit. Asked whether USC, which boasts a large number of international students, many of them from China, has had its reputation in China tarnished by the incident, Liu said, "I don't think so." She said it might sway students choosing between two U.S. schools.
Barnes and Bolden will be back in court Sept. 20 for a preliminary hearing. If covicted, both face the death penalty.