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
December 4, 2009; 8:15 AM ET
Categories: Tom Jackman , Virginia
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