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American Cleared in Seoul Killing

A woman accused in the death of a fellow exchange student is free after a judge rules her confession, which she retracted, inadmissible.

October 15, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — An American college student, the first U.S. citizen ever to be extradited to South Korea, was cleared of manslaughter charges Tuesday by a Korean appellate court judge who ruled that her confession to the brutal beating of another young woman was inadmissible in court.

Although prosecutors are expected to appeal to the Korean Supreme Court, the ruling appeared to set the stage for 22-year-old Kenzi Snider to return to her home in West Virginia. She was extradited to South Korea in December 2002 after telling FBI agents that she had killed Jamie Penich, 20, in a cheap Seoul motel room after Penich allegedly made unwanted sexual advances.

The case -- nicknamed that of the "lesbian killer" by some South Korean tabloids -- was unique from a legal and diplomatic standpoint. When South Korea and the United States signed an extradition treaty in 1998, there was scant expectation that the first American put on trial in South Korea would be accused of killing another U.S. citizen, let alone that the case would involve two young women.

The families of the women say neither of the two was or is gay. Penich was engaged to be married.

The women were exchange students in South Korea. They had gone out drinking and dancing to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in 2001, in the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon, which is packed with bars catering to American soldiers. Penich's badly battered body was found the next morning in her motel room.

The South Korean police called in U.S. military police after investigators focused on several soldiers the young women were dancing with earlier in the evening. But months later, the FBI began to focus on Snider because of inconsistencies in her initial statement. FBI agents tracked her down to West Virginia, where she was interrogated and confessed that she stomped her friend to death in a panic after Penich made a sexual advance. She later retracted the confession.

But South Korean Judge Jun Bong Jin on Tuesday upheld the lower court ruling that the confession was inadmissible because the South Korean legal system requires the presence of a prosecutor in such interrogations.

"It feels good, really good," a weeping Snider told reporters in the Seoul courtroom.

Snider's mother, Heath Bozonie, praised the South Korean legal system and suggested that her daughter might have been falsely convicted if the case had been tried in the United States.

"Kenzi was lied to and tricked into confessing. There were three big men with badges in that room and one confused little girl. We'd like to see the laws changed so that that doesn't happen to other young people," said Bozonie, a schoolteacher who has been living in Seoul since her daughter's extradition.

She said the family had hoped that the case would be wrapped up by the end of this year so that Kenzi could attend her brother's wedding and then return to her studies.

Penich, a native of Derry Township, Pa., was studying anthropology and religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Cyril H. Wecht, a prominent forensic scientist who has been advising the Penich family, said he believed the South Korean courts were being unduly scrupulous out of embarrassment over their own handling of the case.

"Why has the Korean government become so ACLU-minded?" Wecht, referring to the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a recent telephone interview on the case. "I think it has everything to do with saving face. The Koreans are the ones who mishandled the investigation."

According to Wecht, the circumstances under which Penich was beaten and stomped to death in a tiny motel room should have led to an abundance of physical evidence. Others associated with the case said the South Korean police failed to conduct a prompt examination to determine if the victim had been raped, did not take photographs of the crime scene until after it had been cleaned up and allowed spectators to walk around, trampling on evidence.

Brendon Carr, a Seoul-based American lawyer who represented Snider, agreed. "If the murder doesn't happen in front of the policeman's desk, there's a slim chance it will be solved. That's how inadequate the criminal justice system is in Korea."

Carr said the FBI also made errors in the investigation because the agency was under pressure by members of Congress from Pennsylvania to find Penich's killer.

"They came up with this nonsense theory that a homosexual advance had to be met with violence. It might make sense to frat boys or for a movie plot, but it doesn't make sense to women," Carr said.

In Tuesday's ruling, the judge cited evidence suggesting that Penich had been killed by a man. A bloody footprint found on the victim's body was from a large-size boot, and one witness said a man was seen leaving Penich's room about 3 a.m.

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