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State v. Chomnarith

January 02, 2003

STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT,
v.
VONG CHOMNARITH, APPELLANT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. Evidence of premeditation was legally sufficient to sustain appellant's conviction for first-degree murder.

2. Improper admission of trial witness identification photographs for jury deliberations did not deprive appellant of a fair trial.

Affirmed.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anderson, Russell A., Justice.

OPINION

Appellant Vong Chomnarith appeals his conviction of first-degree premeditated murder in connection with the stabbing death of George Berndt, Jr. Chomnarith challenges the sufficiency of the evidence with regard to premeditation and the propriety of witness identification photographs introduced at trial. We affirm.

Vong and Kongpang Chomnarith were married for over 20 years and had five children. They emigrated from Laos to the United States, settling first in Stockton, California. In 1997, the Chomnariths moved to Worthington, Minnesota, where they purchased a home and found employment at the Swift and Company meat-processing plant. Kongpang worked as a meat cutter, and George Berndt, Jr. was her immediate cut supervisor. The Chomnariths divorced in September 1999. In accordance with the final divorce decree, Kongpang received title to the family's residence (the "residence") in Worthington. After the divorce, Kongpang entered into a romantic relationship with Berndt and moved into his house. Chomnarith eventually took another job in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, returning periodically to Worthington on the weekends to visit the children.

On March 17, 2001, Kongpang held a birthday party at the residence for her youngest child. Berndt did not plan to attend. On the day of the party, Berndt drove Kongpang to the residence and left. The agreement between the two was that Kongpang would call Berndt when she was ready to leave the residence. Kongpang's mother invited Chomnarith to the party. He took an active role by hiring a traditional Laotian music ensemble and cooking food. More than 50 Laotian friends and family members attended the party.

Around midnight, as the party was ending, Chomnarith helped the musicians load their equipment into a van. Berndt arrived at the residence driving Kongpang's green van. At some point, Chomnarith and Berndt encountered each other in the driveway, where Chomnarith stabbed Berndt several times.

Berndt fell to the ground and crawled into the street. Chomnarith entered the residence holding a bloody knife in his right hand. He had blood on his hands, clothes, and face. He told two guests that he had killed Berndt. Chomnarith washed the bloody knife in the sink, placed it in a kitchen drawer, then went upstairs and washed and changed his clothes.

Meanwhile, police responded to a radio dispatch placed at 1:11 a.m. and, upon arrival at the residence, found Berndt lying in the middle of the street in a pool of blood. The police believed Berndt was the victim of a hit-and-run car accident and, after rendering first aid, placed him in an ambulance. Berndt was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead at 1:47 a.m. A preliminary examination at the hospital showed he had died of stab wounds. The officers at the residence then began a homicide investigation that led to Chomnarith's arrest.

During a search of the residence, police recovered a knife from a kitchen drawer. The knife, used in the meat-packing industry to skin and separate flesh from bone, had a six-inch blade and a black plastic handle. Kongpang identified the knife as one she had brought from the Swift plant to the residence during a locker-cleaning procedure at the plant. She had not returned the knife despite her employer's instructions to do so. Subsequent DNA tests matched traces of blood on the knife to Berndt's DNA type.

Chomnarith was charged by indictment with first-degree premeditated murder, Minn. Stat. §§ 609.185(1) (2000), 609.11 (2000), second-degree intentional murder, Minn. Stat. §§ 609.19, subd. 1(1) (2000), 609.11, and second-degree felony murder, Minn. Stat. §§ 609.19, subd. 2(1) (2000), 609.11. Following a contested omnibus hearing, the trial court granted Chomnarith's motion to suppress statements he made to the police on the grounds that he had not validly waived his Miranda rights. At trial, the state moved to introduce into evidence individual photographs of each Laotian witness, identified by name.*fn1 Over Chomnarith's objection that the photographs would unnecessarily emphasize the race of ...


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