Jury acquits veteran of homicide charges in Washington, Pa. road-rage incident

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Throughout the 18 months her son was in jail, and during the three days of his trial, Leah Thomas focused on his innocence.

Her vigil ended happily Wednesday when a 12-member jury acquitted him for the 2012 shooting death of a man in a Washington County grocery store parking lot.

“We’re ready to welcome him home,” she said, shortly before her son, Brandon Thomas, was released from jail Wednesday afternoon. “His children are waiting.”

Mr. Thomas, 32, an Army veteran from Upper St. Clair, was found guilty of having drug paraphernalia the day he was arrested and charged with homicide in the death of Vaughn Simonelli, 55, of Chartiers, Oct. 18, 2012, in the parking lot of the Washington, Pa., Shop ‘n Save.

Common Pleas Judge Katherine Emery of Washington County sentenced him to six to 12 months — with credit for time served — and suggested he get help for his drug problem.

“You’ve been given a new opportunity, and you need to figure out how to make that a positive thing,” the judge said.

Members of both families broke into tears after the jury returned its verdict in the emotional trial. Simonelli’s family declined to speak with reporters.

“Feels good, to say the least.... ,” Mr. Thomas told KDKA-TV as he was released. “Feels real good. It’s a long-awaited day. There’s more than one victim in this case, and from my family to everyone else, our condolences go out. I’m just glad justice was served.”

The jury began deliberations shortly before noon Wednesday. About 1:15 p.m., the six women and six men asked the judge for definitions of third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and the Castle Doctrine before returning to consider first- and third-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter charges.

They returned with a verdict shortly after 2:30 p.m.

Mr. Thomas’ attorney, Frank Walker, contended that his client shot Simonelli in self-defense and was justified under the state’s Castle Doctrine, which allows citizens the right to defend themselves in their homes. An expanded definition of the law includes vehicles.

It was the law, he said, that swayed the jury.

“He’s in his car, there is a presumption that he is safe, and anyone intruding in that car while he was in there is subject to him defending himself,” he said.

Army Warrant Officer Jeremiah L. Minor, who served in the Army with Mr. Thomas and spoke on behalf of the family, said he had a “mountain of support” and wrote letters often from jail.

“It is a tragedy about Mr. Simonelli, but you know, it is what it is. It’s a shame, but it’s one man’s life that was in the balance and he had to defend it,” he said.

Mr. Thomas’ wife, BethAnne, said she couldn’t wait to tell her three children that their father would soon be home.

“I’m very lucky to have him in my life,” she said, her voice breaking as she spoke.

Mr. Thomas served as a staff sergeant in the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and completed two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq before he was honorably discharged in 2010.

Though prepared to take the stand in his own defense, Mr. Thomas ultimately chose not to testify, his attorney said.

Prosecutors had said Mr. Thomas was driving erratically and passing cars on Jefferson Avenue on the afternoon of the shooting. According to witnesses, he stopped at a red light and Simonelli got out of his vehicle and confronted Mr. Thomas.

Mr. Thomas drove off when the light turned green and Simonelli followed him into the parking lot and blocked him in a space. One witness testified that while outside his Hummer, Mr. Thomas displayed his gun to Simonelli, said he had to leave and got back in his Hummer. Simonelli then approached the vehicle and two shots were fired, the witness testified.

“As [first assistant district attorney Chad Schneider] stated in his opening, there was conflicting evidence,” District Attorney Gene Vittone of Washington County said to reporters after the trial. “It was a difficult case, we knew that going in. However, we thought that it was a case that needed to be tried.

“The jury didn’t agree with the evidence that was presented, and that’s the system we have.”

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. First Published May 14, 2014 2:23 PM


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