Not guilty verdict in Penich killing; judges cite lack of physical evidence
SEOUL — South Korean judges found a 21-year-old American woman not guilty Thursday of stomping her coed friend to death more than two years ago.
Rejecting a contested confession, the judges said no physical evidence linked Kenzi Noris Elizabeth Snider to the killing of Jamie Lynn Penich, 21, of Derry Township, Pa.
The two were exchange students in South Korea during 2001 — Penich was from University of Pittsburgh and Snider was from Marshall University.
“There’s no material or evidence that shows the accused is guilty,” Chief Judge Kim Nam-tae said, noting Snider contested an alleged confession and that it couldn’t be used as evidence.
Snider, of St. Cloud, Minn., charged with unintentionally injuring a person resulting in death, was the first American to be extradited to South Korea for a crime committed here.
She was released from the South Korean prison where she had been incarcerated for six months shortly after the verdict.
“I’m proud of the way the Korean government handled this case,” Snider’s attorney, Om Sang-ik, said following the verdict.
South Korean prosecutors have seven days to appeal the verdict.
They could not be reached for comment after court adjourned Thursday to discuss whether they plan to appeal.
Following the verdict, the defendant’s mother, Heath Bozonie, rushed to hug her smiling daughter, but was stopped.
“I just can’t figure out why we wasted a year and a half to get to the same point where we were originally,” said Bozonie, who took leave from a teaching job in Thailand to stay in South Korea for more than four months for the trial.
Bozonie said she wondered why investigators focused on her daughter instead of “looking for a very violent murderer.”
Penich’s mother, Patricia, said she was disappointed in the verdict and believes Snider confessed.
“As you can imagine, we were quite disappointed,” she said. “I’m sure they got the right person.”
Snider was charged after allegedly confessing to Penich’s death in a small Itaewon motel room March 18, 2001. The two had spent the evening in a bar before returning to Kum Sung Motel.
Penich’s body was found the following morning. Her jaw was broken; some teeth were found across the motel room.
The Seoul medical examiner determined she suffocated after being stomped with a shoe.
Snider originally told investigators she last heard from Penich after she’d helped her into the shower and checked on her. Snider said she called through a door and Penich replied she was fine.
A number of U.S. soldiers socialized with the two the night Penich was killed. Initially, Army and Korean investigators focused on male suspects, based on a description by the motel manager. Korean police circulated a sketch of a short-haired, young-looking white man.
With no physical evidence linking the soldiers to the crime, they were cleared by prosecutors.
Army and FBI investigators said they later noticed inconsistencies in Snider’s statements.
For three days in February 2002, they questioned her at a Ramada Inn in Huntington, W.Va.
Investigators said Snider admitted during questioning to killing Penich after becoming angry over sexual passes the victim allegedly made at her.
According to an FBI statement, Snider said Penich attempted to take off Snider’s pants after the two kissed. Snider allegedly hit Penich, causing her to fall in the bathroom. Snider then moved Penich from the bathroom and trampled her face, neck and chest.
Penich’s roommate — an exchange student from the Netherlands — told police she slept through the killing.
Snider refuted the confession in court, saying she was coerced by investigators befriending her. She testified she was a “scapegoat” pegged as a killer to protect soldiers.
U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command agent Mark Mansfield, testifying in May, said Snider confessed after being confronted with the inconsistencies.
He said agents believe Penich never took a shower and hearing another person call through the bathroom door was impossible. Investigators found no trace of blood on Snider’s clothing.
Marc A. Raimondi, CIC spokesman, said the agency will continue to offer assistance, but plans no further investigation.
“We still stand by our investigative findings,” Raimondi said.