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Threat to cut man's head off not that threatening, judge rules

A Vietnamese immigrant in Richmond,who sent his congressman a bloodstained letter vowing to decapitate a U.S. consular official, was found not guilty Thursday of threatening a federal official and using the U.S. mails to make such a threat, the Associated Press is reporting.

U.S. District Judge Robert Payne ruled that prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Phuong Nguyen Le of Richmond really intended to harm U.S. Consular Chief Charles Bennett in Ho Chi Minh City.

Prosecutors said Le, 50, mailed a letter to the Richmond office of U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott last year threatening to cut off Bennett’s head. Le was angry because a visa application for his wife in Vietnam was rejected, and Bennett’s letter informing him of the decision suggested the marriage was a sham.

The letter also threatened a massacre worse than the Virginia Tech shootings. The typewritten page was heavily smeared with Le’s blood, which he also used to sign his name.

Payne said he was persuaded by a psychiatrist’s testimony that in Vietnamese culture, the decapitation remark would be viewed as an insult, not a threat. Dr. Paul K. Leung, psychiatry director at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, also said blood-signing is intended to convey a letter’s seriousness and truthfulness.

Le actually had already spent a year in jail and pleaded guilty to the mail charge. But Payne allowed him to withdraw the plea and go to trial.

Le’s lawyer, Amy Austin of the federal public defender’s office, said her client’s drunkenness and poor grasp of the English language resulted in the unfortunate choice of words.

“This is a case in which the concept of reasonable doubt truly makes a difference,” Payne said, citing testimony that “language about head-cutting can be and is a euphemism” in Vietnamese culture.

-- Tom Jackman

By Tom Jackman  |  December 4, 2009; 8:15 AM ET
Categories:  Tom Jackman , Virginia  
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Wait a damn minute! Which defense is it; What he did was acceptable because its ok in Vietnam or he was drunk and didn't understand English? How the hell can you have two different defenses? Polygamy is ok in Vietnam, but it wouldn't fly in American. And you can't drive drunk, run over someone and clam it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't been drinking. I wonder that Judge Payne would do if he received such a letter. He'd be screeming for security.

Posted by: sshill41 | December 4, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Judges are idiots!

Posted by: gpl2411 | December 4, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Threaten to cut a judge's head off and see where that gets you. I bet the results wouldnt be pretty.

Posted by: RetiredMarine13 | December 4, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

So when the Vietnamese man decapitated a fellow bus rider in Canada, that was a cultural insult? And when the Vietnamese man decapitated a fellow student at Virginia Tech, again, a cultural insult?

Posted by: member5 | December 4, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Member5, the men you referenced are both Chinese, not Vietnamese. Haiyang Zhu (the VT killer) was from Ningbo, China. Vincent Li (the Greyhound killer) moved from China to Canada in 2001. Regarding Phuong Nguyen Le, I agree it is silly to think for a court to say that a bloodstained letter threatening decapitation is not a threat. What on Earth would they consider to be a threat!?

Posted by: Laurel2 | December 4, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

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