By Daina Beth Solomon
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Four teenagers pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to the fatal beating of a Chinese graduate student near his Los Angeles apartment several blocks from the University of Southern California.
Jonathan DelCarmen, 19, and Andrew Garcia, 18, could face the death penalty for murder committed in the attempt of a robbery, said the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office.
Two alleged accomplices aged 17 and 16 are exempt from capital punishment because they are under 18, but could face life in prison without parole.
The four, who are being held without bail, will be tried as adults for allegedly attacking 24-year-old engineering student Xinran Ji with a baseball bat during an attempted robbery near his off-campus apartment in late July.
On Tuesday they appeared in a courtroom packed with family friends, and supporters of Ji's family.
Outside, several dozen protesters held up signs calling for
"Justice for Xinran Ji" and photos of the student smiling in his graduation robes.
The attorney for Ji's family, Rose Tsai, said his parents took home Ji's ashes to China last week following a memorial service at USC.
"They are pushing for the maximum penalty allowed under the law," she said.
The defendants' attorneys declined to comment until they can review a surveillance video and other evidence.
Ji, who enrolled at USC last year, was walking to his home near campus around 12:45 a.m. on July 28 when he was hit on the head during the attempted robbery, police say. He made it home, but died of his injuries hours later.
Police have accused the four defendants of carrying out another robbery soon afterward at a Los Angeles beach. A 14-year-old girl also faces seven felony charges in connection with that robbery.
Security at USC was tightened following the murders of two graduate engineering students from China in early 2012. They were shot to death as they sat in a parked car near the campus in what police said was an attempted robbery.
Two men were arrested and charged in the double slaying, which stunned the prestigious private university.
One suspect pleaded guilty to two counts of murder earlier this year and was sentenced to life in prison. His co-defendant is awaiting trial.
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Mohammad Zargham)