Man pleads guilty to murder of USC students from China

LOS ANGELES - A man accused in the 2012 killing of two University of Southern California (USC) graduate students from China, a crime that stunned the prestigious private school, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to murder charges and was sentenced to life in prison.

Bryan Barnes entered his guilty plea during a hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court. The plea was part of an agreement with prosecutors that spares him the possibility of receiving the death penalty if he had been convicted at trial.

Barnes, 21, was sentenced to two consecutive life prison terms without the possibility of parole.

The fathers of both victims, Ming Qu and Ying Wu, told the court of the impact the murders had on their families, according to a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney.

Both men had travelled to Los Angeles from China for the hearing.

"It was extremely dramatic and emotional. It's a tragedy for the families, and they spoke of their great loss," said Ms Jane Robison, spokesman for the District Attorney. "Both families are devastated by the murder."

Barnes' co-defendant, 21-year-old Javier Bolden, still faces trial in the high-profile case and is next due in court on March 21. Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty in his case.

Mr Qu and Mr Wu, both graduate students in engineering at USC, were shot to death early on Apr 11, 2012, as they were sitting in a parked BMW outside Mr Wu's rented home, a few blocks from the USC campus.

Mr Wu was found slumped over in the passenger seat, shot in the chest. Mr Qu staggered out of the car to a nearby home, where he collapsed.

The murders, which prosecutors say came during a robbery gone wrong, sent shockwaves through the campus. USC has said it has the largest number of international students at any major United States university.

USC had more than 7,200 international students enrolled in 2011 out of a total of nearly 37,000, with the largest group from China, the school's website said.

The crimes also sparked a debate over whether USC had provided adequate security in the neighborhoods adjacent to the urban campus, where many students live.

The murdered students' families have filed a wrongful death lawsuit, accusing the school of misrepresenting the area where the two students were shot as safe, and of failing to provide security patrols.