Tears erupted from both sides of a Washington County courtroom Wednesday when a jury found an ex-soldier not guilty of homicide in the road rage shooting death of a Washington man.
Brandon Thomas, 32, of Upper St. Clair, was acquitted in the October 2012 shooting death of 55-year-old Vaughn Simonelli in the parking lot of the Shop ’n Save supermarket in Washington. He claimed Simonelli was the aggressor and he shot him in self-defense while inside his vehicle.
Thomas, who served with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, was found guilty of possession of drug paraphernalia for having five empty stamp bags in his sock at the time of the shooting. Judge Katherine Emery sentenced him to 6 to 12 months in jail on that charge with credit for the 18 months he has served since the shooting. Thomas was released from jail shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday.
His family and friends cheered as he walked out of jail, and he met his wife with a long, tearful embrace.
“This is a long-awaited day,” Thomas said.
His attorney, Frank Walker, said Thomas’ family was ecstatic with the verdict. Walker said Thomas was grateful.
“He was happy,” Walker said. “He grabbed my arm and said ‘Thank you.’ He’s overwhelmed right now.”
After the verdict was read, Emery told Thomas to “make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
“You’ve been given an opportunity,” she said. “Get the help you need. Address your drug and mental health problems.”
Walker declined to comment on those problems. Charges of driving under the influence of a controlled substance stemming from an incident three days before the shooting, when Thomas was found slumped over the steering wheel of his Hummer in a North Franklin Township parking lot wearing a bulletproof vest with a loaded semiautomatic handgun strapped to his waist, remain outstanding.
Walker said the law swayed the jury’s verdict.
“He was followed, attacked and defended himself.”
During closing arguments Wednesday, Walker argued that Thomas was defending himself when he shot Simonelli, claiming that the castle doctrine law allowed him to do so. 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.
Thomas told police he was inside his vehicle when Simonelli punched him through the open window and he then fired two shots.
To avoid conflict after the verdict was read, the Thomas and Simonelli families were asked to leave the courtroom at different times. Simonelli’s family declined to comment.
Thomas’ family held a brief news conference afterward. Army Warrant Officer Jeremiah Minor, a friend of Thomas, spoke on behalf of the family. Minor said justice was served and the “truth got out.”
“It’s something that any person with their wits about them would have done,” Minor said of the shooting. “It is a tragedy. It is a shame. But it was one man’s life in the balance here.”
Minor said Thomas had a “mountain of support” while in jail.
“He had an army behind him. It kept him positive.”
Thomas’ mother, Leah Thomas, said she was relieved that the process was over. She said the family looks forward to having Thomas home.
“He has done his time,” she said. “His children are waiting, and we need to go get him.”
Thomas’ wife, BethAnne, said she couldn’t wait to break the news to her children.
“I can’t wait to tell them,” she said between sobs.
District Attorney Gene Vittone said the case was difficult because of the inconsistent eyewitness testimony. Nonetheless, he said his office had to “try it.”
“It was a difficult case and we knew that going in,” Vittone said. “But we knew it was a case that had to be tried.”
The jury could have found Thomas guilty of first-degree murder, third-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, but rejected all three charges.
While Vittone said he respects the jury’s verdict, he doesn’t agree with it.
“That’s the system we have.”