Defense begins case in Col. Park murder trial

KENNEWICK -- The refugee camp in Thailand where Phiengchai Sisouvanh Synhavong was born had no running water, electricity and little food.

"I would never want to have any children when I lived there," Sisouvanh Synhavong's uncle, Noi Sisouvanh, testified in Benton County Superior Court. "It was a pretty bad place to have kids."

Noi Sisouvanh was the first witness called Monday morning when defense attorneys began presenting their case. He recalled conditions at the refugee camp and incidents where he said Sisouvanh Synhavong's mother beat her daughter with a bamboo stick or her hand.

"The way I see it, spanking was just (when a parent) hit a kids' butt, that's normal. But that was an outrageous way to hit a kid," Noi Sisouvanh testified.

Defense attorneys say their client was living in a fantasy world brought on by physical, mental and sexual abuse as a child. They say the years of abuse left Sisouvanh Synhavong unable to know the difference between right and wrong.

Sisouvanh Synhavong is charged with aggravated first-degree murder for the 2008 death of Araceli Camacho Gomez. She is accused of repeatedly stabbing the 27-year-old Pasco woman and cutting her nearly full-term baby from her womb.

Sisouvanh Synhavong has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

If convicted, Sisouvanh Synhavong will be sentenced to life in prison. If acquitted by reason of insanity, she would be turned over to the state Department of Social and Health Services to determine how long she would be committed to a state mental hospital.

Last week, jurors listened to hours of recorded interviews with Kennewick police detectives after Sisouvanh Synhavong's June 28, 2008, arrest. They heard Sisouvanh Synhavong admit to killing Camacho Gomez in the back seat of a car, cutting out the baby boy, who survived the ordeal, and dumping the mother's body in the brush in Columbia Park in Kennewick.

Prosecutor Andy Miller rested his case Monday morning, then defense attorneys, Michael Iaria and Dan Arnold, began questioning witnesses who worked with or knew Sisouvanh Synhavong before June 2008.

Kathleen Susan McKinley, a registered nurse and instructor at Tri-Tech Skills Center, recalled a couple of stories that Sisouvanh Synhavong told where it appeared the then-teen didn't realize they weren't real.

One was a story about a woman who plucked out her own eyeball and gave it to her blind husband so he could see again. McKinley said Sisouvanh Synhavong seemed surprised when she was told that it wasn't medically possible for that to happen.

McKinley said Sisouvanh Synhavong also told her a story about a woman who gave birth to an elephant and was "adamant that it had happened" even when McKinley told her itwasn't possible.

Other witnesses who worked at Avalon Health Care Center with Sisouvanh Synhavong testified about how Sisouvanh Synhavong told them things that weren't true.

Vanessa Juarez said Sisouvanh Synhavong showed her a picture that she said was of her wedding, but Juarez said it looked more like people dressed up for a dance or prom, not a wedding.

Amanda Mancill said she was given an invitation to Sisouvanh Synhavong's April 28, 2007, wedding at her parents' house on 19th Avenue in Kennewick. Sisouvanh Synhavong was supposed to be marrying a man with a Russian last name, she said.

Mancill said she couldn't go to the wedding because she was working, but she called later that night and Sisouvanh Synhavong said they were at a Chinese restaurant in Richland.

Mancill said she and Juarez went there around 10:30 p.m. and it was closed. When she called Sisouvanh Synhavong again, she told them she had left.

"We asked her to come back so we could meet her husband and she said he was shy and didn't want to come back," Mancill said, adding that she later learned Sisouvanh Synhavong never did get married.

Sisouvanh Synhavong's uncle also testified about how the family moved to the United States in 1991, and he served as the babysitter for Sisouvanh Synhavong and her younger sister while the parents went to work.

He said his niece's mother continued to beat and yell at her over things like getting dirty, not folding the blanket on her bed after getting up in the morning and not picking up toys after playing.

He characterized the way Sisouvanh Synhavong was punished as "extremely beyond" normal spanking and said her mother would hit her with a fly swatter or with a wooden cooking spoon until the spoon broke.

Social service workers in Minnesota, where the family lived at the time, were called to school once after Sisouvanh Synhavong was hit, took her to the hospital and removed her from the home, Noi Sisouvanh said.

Noi Sisouvanh, who still lives in Austin, Minn., said he hasn't seen Sisouvanh Synhavong's family since about 1995. He said Sisouvanh Synhavong's mother often would yell at her and say things like she wished Sisouvanh Synhavong never was born or that she had died when she was young.

"Sometimes Phiengchai ... would talk to (her doll) and say, 'I wish mommy never hit,' " he said. "She always says she's a princess, and she's a movie star. When she talked to dolls, she said, 'Mommy will make a lot of money and take good care of you."

Testimony continues today at the Benton County Justice Center.

-- Paula Horton: 509-582-1556;