Jury to deliberate in ex-soldier’s homicide trial

May 13, 2014
Brandon Thomas is escorted from Washington County Courthouse Tuesday following the second day of testimony in his homicide trial. Closing arguments in the case are expected today. - Mike Jones / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

After two days of toying with the possibility, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran accused of killing a man after a road rage incident decided Tuesday not to testify on his own behalf at his homicide trial.

Defense attorney Frank Walker said Brandon Thomas was prepared to take the stand but decided against it because his story has been told “over and over again.” The defense rested its case shortly thereafter after hearing from Thomas’ wife and asking Washington County Judge Katherine Emery to acquit Thomas. The request was denied.

Thomas, 32, of Upper St. Clair, could learn his fate as early as this afternoon, when the jury will begin deliberations after hearing closing arguments.

Earlier Tuesday, the prosecution rested its case after presenting testimony from pathologist Dr. Abdulrezak Shakir, a forensic scientist specializing in gunshot residue and a member of the Washington Police Department who served as an expert witness on drug paraphernalia. Their testimony took up most of the day, and again presented the jury with conflicting information.

Closing arguments will begin around 9:30 a.m. today before the 12-member jury.

Shakir, who conducted the autopsy on the victim, Vaughn Simonelli, 55, of Washington, testified Tuesday that the first of the two shots Thomas fired Oct. 18, 2012, in the parking lot of the Washington Shop ’n Save was fatal, severing Simonelli’s spinal cord and killing him instantly. He testified the cause of Simonelli’s death was a gunshot to the neck.

Thomas is accused of fatally shooting Simonelli after a road-rage incident on Jefferson Avenue. Shakir also testified Simonelli had a blood-alcohol level of 0.024 percent, which is under the legal limit, and Thomas tested positive for a therapeutic level of morphine.

Forensic scientist Julia Patterson said all of the samples submitted for testing showed traces of gunshot residue. As a result, Patterson said she could not conclusively say whether the gun was fired from inside or outside of Thomas’ Hummer.

Additionally, Washington police Detective Jack Hancock, who specializes in narcotics, could not conclusively say whether five empty wax-paper bags were used to contain drugs. The night Thomas was arrested, police found what they identified as five empty stamp bags, commonly known to carry heroin, in Thomas’ left sock. The bags tested negative for heroin, but Hancock said the bags could have been licked or scraped clean. The remaining residue also could have been absorbed by moisture in the sock.

“The location plays a part in determining what the bags are,” he said.

The stamp bags came up later in the day when the defense called Washington & Jefferson College professor and licensed psychologist Dr. Michael Crabtree to testify. Crabtree testified that the amount of morphine found in Thomas’ system wasn’t necessarily impairing and could technically have been a false positive. He said heroin had a similar chemical structure to morphine.

When presented with the information about the stamp bags, Crabtree said when heroin breaks down, it can turn into and present as morphine. They only way to determine this is through a blood test done within a few hours of the heroin consumption, Crabtree said.

Investigators testified Monday and Tuesday that Thomas came to Washington because he wasn’t feeling well and left his home to get medicine and Gatorade. Thomas later told investigators he also needed to drop off paperwork at a Washington business. Investigators testified that Thomas said Simonelli cut him off at the intersection at Jefferson and Hall avenues, rubbing or striking his vehicle. Witnesses testified Monday that Thomas was driving erratically down Jefferson and cut off Simonelli.

Investigators also said Thomas told them Simonelli aggressively approached him and even shoved him in the parking lot, and that Simonelli threw a punch at Thomas through his open vehicle window. Thomas said he fired at Simonelli from inside the vehicle.

Thomas’ wife, Beth Ann Thomas, briefly testified about her conversation with Washington police Lt. Daniel Stanek, visibly shaking on the witness stand.

“He said he was unsure,” she said of the case. “That this was the first time he had seen a case like this” dealing with the castle doctrine law, she explained.

That is a topic that Walker said his closing argument will focus on.

“I’ll be arguing self-defense and castle doctrine law,” he said. “We should hand it over to the jury by noon (today).”

Pennsylvania’s castle doctrine law was amended in 2011 to allow a person to use deadly force for self-defense in his vehicle as well as his home if he believes he it is necessary to protect himself from death or serious bodily injury.

Prior to ending for the day Tuesday, Walker presented two motions to Washington County Judge Katherine Emery asking her to acquit Thomas because the prosecution had not presented sufficient evidence.

Thomas, who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, is charged with felony criminal homicide and three misdemeanor counts of possession of drug paraphernalia.

He has been in Washington County jail since the shooting.

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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