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Conviction Overturned; Retrial is Possible

When Centreville's Christopher U-Thasoonthorn found his girlfriend in bed with another man, in October 2000, he became so enraged that he beat the man and caused permanent injuries.

Charged with aggravated malicious wounding, U-Thasoonthorn, 23, of Centre Ridge, went on trial in April 2001 in Fairfax County Circuit Court. The jury found him guilty and recommended he serve 20 years in prison.

Before his sentencing, June 29, 2001, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney John Murphy said the victim, a 24-year-old Burke man, will carry both physical and emotional scars from the beating for the rest of his life. And he told Judge Jane Roush that U-Thasoonthorn is "brutal and merciless, and there's no place for [him] in civilized society."

Roush agreed, calling it "as bad as an aggravated maiming gets. This was a vicious attack on a defenseless victim." She sentenced U-Thasoonthorn to 20 years in prison and suspended eight years, leaving him 12 years to serve.

But — citing improper instruction to the jury that heard his case — U-Thasoonthorn's defense attorney, James G. Connell III, appealed the decision. And on Oct. 8, the Virginia Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and remanded the case back to Circuit Court for possible retrial.

"The Court of Appeals said there was no cooling-off period between [U-Thasoonthorn] seeing them together and [him] beating the victim," explained Connell. "Therefore, the jury was instructed wrong. It was actually a heat-of-passion crime, which is a lesser offense."

(Centre View is not identifying the Burke man because he's a victim. However, he'd just signed with a modeling agency and was slated to have his photographs taken, a month after U-Thasoonthorn pulverized his face. The beating derailed that career before it began).

The incident occurred Oct. 27, 2000, in a Springfield townhouse. Details were revealed during the April 2001 trial. Melissa Steele, 20 — in whose home the crime took place — testified that, the night of Oct. 26, 2000, she and the victim went to some Georgetown bars with U-Thasoonthorn's live-in girlfriend, 22-year-old Tess Winger of Centreville.

Returning home, Steele went to her room, and Winger and the victim lay in a hide-a-bed downstairs in the living room. They'd only met once before, but both had drunk a great deal that night. They undressed and engaged in foreplay, but didn't have intercourse because they didn't have a condom. So the victim put on his boxers and they went to sleep.

Steele left for a trip, early next morning, but U-Thasoonthorn reached her on her cell phone, at the Metro station, and asked where his girlfriend was. Steele said she was at her house, sleeping.

U-Thasoonthorn rushed over and, finding Winger and the victim asleep in bed, he concluded they'd had sex. While the victim slept, he pummeled and ravaged his face with a set of car keys. The would-be model sustained lacerations, a broken jaw and nose, a caved-in cheek and broken eye sockets.

Afterward, U-Thasoonthorn — a Marine — took his bloodstained clothes and keys and drove to Blacksburg to visit a Marine buddy. He got his friend to switch cars with him and had his car's bloodstained seatbelt removed. But he'd left his cell phone at the scene of the crime, and police eventually caught up with him.

During the trial, Murphy said a gun was found in U-Thasoonthorn's car. And, after describing his patient's injuries, the victim's plastic surgeon, Dr. Steven Poole Davidson, said that only a tool could have caused so much damage.

Stressing that U-Thasoonthorn intended to inflict as much pain and harm upon the victim as possible, Murphy told Judge Roush, "It wasn't one or two blows — it was multiple blows which broke 10 bones, including some of the strongest in the face."

Connell said that, except for that one, "aberrant act," his client was "more than a model citizen," and he asked that he be given community service, instead of a prison sentence. But he received 12 years.

In later appealing the decision, Connell contended that the trial court erroneously refused to consider not giving a cooling-off instruction to the jury. He also argued that the evidence was insufficient for a conviction. Three Court of Appeals judges in Alexandria reviewed the case and, on Oct. 8, Judge Rosemarie Annunziata issued a written opinion.

During the trial, she wrote, the court instructed the jury that "If a person acts upon reflection or deliberation, or after his passion has cooled or there has been a reasonable time or opportunity for cooling, then the act is not attributable to the heat of passion. The court overruled U-Thasoonthorn's objection to this instruction and declined to give his proffered instruction, which did not include reference to 'cooling off.'"

U-Thasoonthorn contended that the evidence didn't support the instruction given and, wrote Annunziata, "We agree." She also noted that heat of passion is determined by the nature and degree of the provocation and may be based upon rage, fear or a combination of these two emotions.

"It is beyond dispute that U-Thasoonthorn was enraged and thus provoked when he found his girlfriend of eight years ... in bed with another man who wore only his underwear," wrote the judge. She said the Commonwealth contended that "while U-Thasoonthorn attempted to wake Wenger and obtained a weapon with which to beat [the victim], sufficient time elapsed for his passion to subside and reason to return. The evidence, however, fails to support this contention."

Therefore, Annunziata concluded that the Circuit Court jury should have been allowed to consider a heat-of-passion defense and was incorrectly advised against it. Under proper instruction, she wrote, "The jury may have found that U-Thasoonthorn acted in the heat of passion, [rather than malice], and thus was not guilty of aggravated malicious wounding."

However, she also wrote that "the totality of the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he maliciously beat [the victim] with intent to kill, maim, disable or disfigure him." She said it's enough to sustain his conviction and he may be "retried without violating double-jeopardy principles."