Jury delivers not guilty verdict
WORTHINGTON -- A jury in Nobles County District Court deliberated for half an hour Thursday before rendering a not guilty verdict in a trial against Sonny Syhavong on charges of robbery, fifth-degree assault and theft.
In a case with no evidence other than the victim's claim of identifying the person who mugged him, it came down to his word against the defendant's. The jury, charged with the task of deciding whether or not Syhavong was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, was apparently not convinced, despite the state's best efforts.
During opening statements, Nobles County Assistant Attorney Kathy Kusz told the jury the case was not long and complicated. The victim, she said, had been out for a late-night walk due to insomnia and had encountered a man who had hit him and taken his property.
"He knew the person that did that to him was Sonny," Kusz told the jury.
"(The victim) made a mistake," countered public defender Christina Wietzema. "Sonny Syhavong did not commit this crime... Certainty is not correctness."
The possibility that the victim was mistaken in his identifying of Syhavong as his assailant was never explored by law enforcement, Wietzema stated.
Syhavong was charged in June with robbery, theft and assault after allegedly mugging the man who was returning to his home after a walk around the lake. The charges were filed just days before Syhavong's 19th birthday.
During testimony, the victim was asked by Kusz how sure he was that it was Syhavong that punched him, knocked him to the ground and stole his wallet and MP3 player.
"One hundred percent," the victim replied.
It was around 1 a.m. June 6, the victim said, when a person he recognized as Syhavong walked up and asked if he could borrow a cigarette. While pantomiming the action of smoking with his left hand, the assailant reached out and punched the victim with his right hand, knocking him to the ground and taking his belongings.
The location of the assault was near the Worthington High School and brightly lit, the victim stated.
He didn't report the incident, he said, because he was somewhat embarrassed. It wasn't until he went to a prayer meeting the following morning that he told his pastor what had happened when questioned about his black eye and swollen jaw.
The victim said he had never spoken to Syhavong, but had learned his name in high school.
Dressed in suit and tie, the victim was well-spoken and articulate. Syhavong, who testified on his own behalf, mumbled and gave half-answers when questioned, claiming he was home sleeping when the assault took place. He said he had played basketball with a friend and gone to bed shortly after 11 p.m., not waking up until 8 a.m. the next day.
Also testifying on Thursday was Worthington Police Office Bruce Stugelmeyer, who recounted his conversation with the victim that June morning.
"He told me it was an Asian male by the name of Sonny," Stugelmeyer said.
Stugelmeyer helped organize a photo line-up, and said the victim picked Syhavong's picture out quickly.
During cross-examination, Wietzema stopped just short of chastising Stugelmeyer, but the implication was there as she questioned him about his investigation technique.
"Aren't you trained to ask for a description of a suspect?" she asked at one point.
"I normally would, but he told me he knew who his attacker was," the officer replied.
Under questioning Stugelmeyer admitted he had never stopped at the crime scene, merely driven by, and that a search at Syhavong's residence turned up no sign of the stolen wallet, MP3 player or the clothes the victim said Syhavong was wearing.
Syhavong has previous juvenile adjudications of fifth-degree assault, harassment and violations of restraining orders. The jury was informed of only the felony conviction for the restraining order violation.