KENNEWICK -- Jurors at the upcoming trial of Phiengchai Sisouvanh Synhavong will be able to hear statements she made to police in June 2008 just hours after allegedly killing a pregnant Pasco mother to steal the woman's baby.
Judge Robert Swisher ruled Friday that all statements Sisouvanh Synhavong made at the hospital and the police station are admissible, except for two responses she gave to a detective who failed to first read her Miranda rights when she already was in custody.
Sisouvanh Synhavong, 25, is charged in Benton County Superior Court in the death of Araceli Camacho Gomez.
Prosecutors allege she killed Camacho Gomez, then dumped the 27-year-old woman's body in Columbia Park in Kennewick, after cutting her near-term baby from the womb so Sisouvanh Synhavong could pretend it was her own.
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Sisouvanh Synhavong called 911 late June 27, 2008, claiming she had just given birth in her Acura and the baby was having difficulty breathing.
It was only after a series of medical tests at Kennewick General Hospital that a doctor confirmed she was not pregnant, nor had she just given birth.
Sisouvanh Synhavong faces trial Sept. 27 on one count of aggravated first-degree murder.
On Friday, Swisher spent a half-hour explaining his ruling.
His decision was based on the testimony of nine prosecution witnesses during a Sept. 2 hearing. He heard arguments on the matter from prosecutors and defense lawyers Sept. 3, then asked for a week to review his notes and case law on the issue.
When Kennewick police and paramedics responded to the WorkSource parking lot to help the woman and child, they had "no reason to believe the defendant had not given birth to the baby" or that a crime had been committed, Swisher said. At the scene, officers heard Sisouvanh Synhavong repeatedly ask if her baby was alive.
Sisouvanh Synhavong was not treated as a suspect or given police escort to the hospital, and her car was left locked but unsecured in the parking lot, he said
Dr. Victor Brooks was assigned to treat Sisouvanh Synhavong at the hospital while the regular emergency room doctor and other medical staff worked on the newborn boy who was said to be near death. The baby, Salvador, survived after a lengthy hospitalization.
At no time, was "the situation at Kennewick General Hospital or in the defendant's examination room" dominated by law enforcement, Swisher said.
He found that Brooks was "never an agent of the state or the law enforcement," and was questioning Sisouvanh Synhavong about the birth and circumstances surrounding it as part of treatment and later out of concern for both his patient and the baby's natural mother.
Sisouvanh Synhavong was not in custody; she was "as free to go or refuse treatment as any citizen would be," Swisher said. And though she expressed an interest in leaving, she openly answered questions from Detective Ryan Kelly, who thought the doctor was "jumping to conclusions and exaggerating" when he told Kelly he believed she had killed someone because the baby was not hers.
Kelly asked Sisouvanh Synhavong, "What's going on?" which Swisher says is "a salutation a lot of people use when they walk up to somebody. Again, it's not a pointed question seeking a confession in any way."
It was only when Sisouvanh Synhavong reportedly said she didn't think the mother of the child was OK and that she was in Columbia Park that Kelly sought further advice from his supervisor and returned to read the suspect her Miranda warnings.
Swisher said everything Sisouvanh Synhavong told Kelly up to the point and in a subsequent interview in the exam room are admissible because the questions were "preliminary, which enabled him to go on to the next step."
"Two years ago it would take a jump to conclude that this type of event took place. It's hard to accept, and I think that's the attitude of all of the people at the time," Swisher said. "We can't look at this in the totality of the circumstances. I think we have to look at it in the way it was presented to the individuals at the time. Again, now we're hardened to it. At the time, it was unheard of."
Camacho Gomez's body was discovered early June 28, 2008, in the park with multiple stab wounds to her chest. She already was the mother of two children.
The defense says that when Sisouvanh Synhavong was taken to the Kennewick Police Department for an interview with detectives that started at 2 a.m. and lasted 5 1/2 hours, she asked to talk to an attorney, which means any further questioning should have stopped.
But Swisher said Sisouvanh Synhavong clearly responded "no" when Detective Wes Gardner asked, "You want a lawyer now, is that what you're saying?"
The only issue Swisher had was when Detective Rick Runge took Sisouvanh Synhavong back to Kennewick General Hospital later that morning to collect evidence per a search warrant.
During a "casual conversation" while waiting in the examination room, Sisouvanh Synhavong "volunteered" that she believed Detective Greg Castro tricked her into a confession, Swisher said. That is admissible in trial.
But then Runge, a veteran detective, asked the suspect, "You did kill her, right?" Sisouvanh Synhavong responded, "Yes," Runge testified.
He followed that by saying he didn't mean to offend her, but that he couldn't grasp how she could allegedly kill an expectant mother and take the baby. He asked her to explain, and Sisouvanh Synhavong reportedly talked about "having been pregnant in the past and losing a child," Runge testified.
The answers to those questions will not be introduced to the jury, Swisher ruled, because Runge did not read Sisouvanh Synhavong her constitutional rights prior to that conversation. The earlier interrogation at the police department had been stopped by the other detectives, so this was not "part of integrated continuing questioning," he said.
Also Friday, Sisouvanh Synhavong entered a plea of "not guilty by reason of insanity."
Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said she needed to change her plea to reflect statements from her lawyers that she will be presenting an insanity defense at trial. The defense will not include diminished capacity.
When asked by attorney Dan Arnold if she was agreeing to that, as they'd earlier talked about, Sisouvanh Synhavong responded, "Yes."
Miller told the court that, given the recently confirmed defense strategy, he wants a second evaluation by state psychologist Randall Strandquist for the purpose of insanity. Strandquist earlier examined Sisouvanh Synhavong at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake and determined that she was feigning psychological symptoms to avoid a trial.
Strandquist plans to visit Sisouvanh Synhavong on Wednesday in the jail to determine, as a result of mental disease or defect, whether she "had the capacity to either perceive the nature and quality of the offense, or to know right from wrong with reference to those offenses," the order says. The evaluation will be done with her attorney present.
Miller said Strandquist will have his report done before trial so the Sept. 27 date shouldn't be affected. Arnold said he too wants "to do everything I can to keep this court date," but he acknowledged the possibility of asking for another trial delay when the case returns to court Thursday.
If convicted of the murder, Sisouvanh Synhavong faces life in prison.
Miller announced in March that he would not seek the death penalty. He said there was little chance the case would be upheld on appeal and carried out given the defendant's lack of criminal history and the fact a single victim was involved.
Miller also said the victim's husband, Juan Campos Gomez, didn't care whether Sisouvanh Synhavong faced death if convicted. His hope has been for a quick resolution for his family and to not have the case still pending years from now in the appeal process, Miller said.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org