Jury rejects insanity claim in Kennewick slaying of pregnant woman

Phiengchai Sisouvanh Synhavong showed no reaction Tuesday as she stood before a jury that decided she should be sent to prison for the gruesome slaying of a pregnant Pasco mother two years ago.

Defense claims that the 25-year-old Kennewick woman was insane when she repeatedly stabbed Araceli Camacho Gomez and cut Gomez's baby from her womb in June 2008, weren't enough to sway Benton County Superior Court jurors.

After 11 days of testimony, it took less than seven hours of deliberating before they found Sisouvanh Synhavong guilty of aggravated first-degree murder.

Sisouvanh Synhavong had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, with defense attorneys saying she lived in a fantasy land and was unable to tell the difference between right and wrong because of the years of childhood abuse she suffered.

"I think that there were some aspects of the case that were pretty cut and dry," one juror, who asked not to be named, told the Tri-City Herald after the verdict was announced. "We spent the most amount of time on the doctors' reports and testimonies and the amount ofevidence that was provided in regards to her insanity plea."

Another juror, Paul Sinclair of Kennewick, said the jurors agreed that "anybody who would do that had to be mentally disturbed at some point."

But, "we had to decide that the preponderance of the evidence showed that it was true she was insane, and there just wasn't a preponderance of the evidence," Sinclair said.

Outside the courtroom, Prosecutor Andy Miller said he noticed the jury was very attentive during the trial, and it appeared jurors had it narrowed down to just a few issues to discuss before reaching the verdict.

"This was just a very, very sad case, so it's just nice to have it over with," Miller said. "A trial ends up being about the defendant, and it's so easy to forget about the victim and the victim's family. ... (The verdict) does give closure for the family and hopefully they can go on with their repaired life now."

Juan Gomez, Camacho Gomez's husband, wasn't in court to hear the jury find his wife's killer guilty, but he did attend much of the trial, and his son, Juan Gomez Jr., took the stand to testify about meeting Sisouvanh Synhavong on the last day he saw his mother alive.

The baby, Salvador Gomez, survived his traumatic birth and is being raised by his father and two older siblings.

Defense attorney Dan Arnold declined to comment on the verdict. Co-counsel Michael Iaria was not in court for the verdict.

Before the nine men and three women on the jury reached their verdict Tuesday afternoon, they did send a question to the court asking to listen to one of the recorded exhibits. Attorneys and Judge Robert Swisher were in court discussing how to prepare the exhibits, when they got word the jury had made their decision.

The verdict came in around 2:45 p.m. and was announced about an hour later. There was heightened security in the packed courtroom, with two bailiffsand six corrections officers from the Benton County jail.

Sisouvanh Synhavong's parents, who were present for closing arguments Monday, were not in court.

Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg, who was in court with nine police administrators and investigators, said he wasn't surprised by the guilty verdict because it was based on the facts. He also credited the hard work of his department and prosecutors.

"Our heart still goes out to the family and to Juan," Hohenberg said. "Unfortunately bad things happen, even in a great community, and it's good to have this particular one over."

After the verdict was read, Swisher excused the jurors and thanked them for their service.

"It's been a long and demanding case, and your service has been greatly appreciated," he said.

A number of jurors reached by the Herald on Tuesday evening said they didn't feel comfortable talking about the case, but one juror did echo the judge's sentiments about how difficult it was.

"I know it's an experience that I will never forget," the juror said. "There were a lot of parts that were very difficult. It was hard ... at certain parts and certain pieces of testimony to maintain composure and not let your emotions show."

Although she initially didn't want to be picked for the jury panel because it would be a huge commitment and heavy responsibility, the juror said she was "honored" to serve.

"I was so thankful to be able to see it through to the end, once it started, and to come to a conclusion that wasn't really heavily debated and to feel confident in the facts," the juror said.

Sinclair said jurors talked about some key points -- Sisouvanh Synhavong had a suction bulb in her purse, seemed to have scouted out other pregnant women and stabbed Camacho Gomez 47 times -- to reach the guilty verdict.

He also said they reviewed testimony from the psychologists and their notes on the taped interviews Sisouvanh Synhavong had with Kennewick police and the defense psychologist, Philip Barnard.

"We think the way Dr. Barnard asked questions on the interview that he was leading her to come up with a different story," Sinclair said. "We had to kind of dismiss some of that, what we called 'the story,' that she was coming up with, that she was seeing ghosts and Buddha and the light from God."

"We all made mention that Kennewick police did an excellent job in those first interviews," he added. "They just let her talk, and when she was talking then she didn't talk about a Buddha or a wind or say, 'I saw myself.' That came later. Two years later."

Jurors listened to about seven hours of recorded interviews with police detectives and more than two hours of an interview Barnard had with Sisouvanh Synhavong in jail earlier this year.

"Listening to the interviews, it got long at times, but on the other hand it was very interesting stuff to get to hear every last detail of a case and be that close to it," Sinclair said. "Everybody should do their civic duty and this is what it entails."

Sentencing for Sisouvanh Synhavong was tentatively set for Nov. 3. In March 2009, Miller decided not to seek the death penalty in the case for a number of factors, including Sisouvanh Synhavong's lack of criminal history and the desire of Camacho Gomez's family to resolve the case quickly and not face years of appeals.

"The sentence should be the defendant should die in prison," Miller said. "She will get life in prison without the possibility of parole."

w Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com