HUNTINGTON – A former Marshall University student charged with the death of a fellow exchange student while in South Korea is suing the FBI and two of its agents.
Kenzi Snider, with her attorney, J. Samuel Tenenbaum, filed a suit May 24 in U.S. District Court, seeking $75,000. The suit names the Federal Bureau of Investigation, agents Marc DiVittis and Seung Lee, and United States Army Criminal Investigation Division Agent Mark Mansfield as defendants.
Snider, now 25, was charged with the March 2001 murder of University of Pittsburgh student Jamie Lynn Penich. She was later exonerated by three South Korean courts after spending more than 15 months in jail, including four of those months in Seoul’s Youngdeunpo Detention Center, while awaiting her appeal.
Snider, a resident of Wayne County, was the first American ever extradited to South Korea.
Snider claims the investigators coerced her into confessing and violated her civil rights during their investigation. In the seven-count suit Snider also claims she was deprived of a fair trial, was wrongfully extradited and imprisoned.
Penich was murdered on March 18, 2001, in the Kum Sung Hotel in Itaewon, South Korea. She was staying at the hotel with Snider and five other international exchange students. The official cause of death was suffocation, though the officers believe she was stomped to death.
Snider and Penich had known each other two weeks at the time of Penich’s murder. According to the suit, Penich and Snider, along with the other students, went out to a local bar, Nickelby’s Pub, on their first night in Itaewon.
While at the bar, they met several soldiers from the United States Army, who bought the women drinks. At about 1 a.m., the other students decided to go back to hotel, but Penich and Snider decided to stay out, the suit says.
“They eventually left the bar together,” the suit says about Penich and Snider. “Both had consumed alcohol, but Ms. Penich appeared more intoxicated than Ms. Snider, needing Snider’s support to walk the few blocks back to the hotel.”
Snider then went to bed, and was awoken at 8 a.m. on March 18, by Penich’s roommate, who had found a body in her room. According to police accounts, the body was Penich’s, but was so badly beaten it was difficult to identify.
The South Korean National Police did the initial investigation. Snider and the other students were all interviewed. Members of the Army were also interviewed, since Penich had been fraternizing with several soldiers the night before.
“These initial interviews yielded substantial information indicating that the victim was killed by one or two men,” the suit says.
No one was charged for the murder.
According to the suit, Penich’s parents, Patty and Brian Penich, met with forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht to discuss the investigation of their daughter’s murder. Wecht then relayed his concerns to U.S. Senator Arlen Specter.
Specter went to South Korea to meet with then-President Kim Dae-Jung, to discuss negotiations with North Korea. At the end of the meeting, Specter allegedly mentioned the Penich murder.
“Senator Specter’s visit created significant pressure on both the Korean police and the FBI to solve the crime,” the suit says. “An FBI Agent later characterized the pressure following Specter’s visit as ‘intense.’”
The FBI assigned two agents to the case, Marc DiVittis and Seung Lee. According to the suit, DiVittis had only been an agent for six months. Neither agent had investigated a homicide. The Army also assigned an agent, Mark Mansfield, to the case.
The agents decided to focus on Snider, without cause, the suit says.
“Agents Mansfield and Lee spent the next month or so brainstorming scenarios in which Ms. Snider killed Ms. Penich,” the suit says. “They called their favorite idea, ‘the lesbian angle.’”
According to the suit, the agents made up a theory about the women, saying they began kissing after coming back from the bar on March 17, but that Snider became angry when Penich made advances towards her, then allegedly killed her.
The FBI agents met with Snider on Feb 4,5, and 6, 2002, at the Ramada Hotel in Huntington.
“The defendant agents planned and executed a psychologically coercive interrogation over those three days,” the suit says.
According to the suit, the agents concentrated on small talk, only saying life must be difficult for the killer.
“They also led Ms. Snider to believe that a person charged with Ms. Penich’s murder would not face serious penalties due to the difficulties of extradition to Korea,” the suit says. “If extradited, Agent Lee claimed the killer would not receive a harsh penalty and would be treated better than the average prisoner in a Korean prison.”
On the second day of the interrogation, Snider understood she was being interrogated as a suspect and asked if needed a lawyer. She was told a lawyer would only make things harder.
During the interrogation the agents introduced Snider to the idea of repression. Repression allows the mind to remove certain items from one’s conscious memory to avoid the pain associated with the events.
According to the suit, the interrogation grew hostile and Snider began crying. She claims the agents began calling her a liar and insisting her inability to recall murdering Penich was explained by repression.
“Led to distrust the reliability of her actual memory and misunderstanding the impact of a confession, Ms. Snider finally accepted the version of the murder proffered by the defendants,” the suit says.
Snider was arrested, and according to the suit, the agents failed to read her the Miranda rights until three weeks after her confession.
Snider was held in the South Central Regional Jail from Feb. 28, 2002, until Dec. 18, 2002. She was then extradited to South Korea.
According to the suit, Snider lived in solitary confinement in a four-by-seven foot cell for six weeks. She was then moved to a cell with nine to 14 other women, where they slept on blankets on the floor.
On June 19, 2003, Snider was acquitted by the Seoul District Court. In October 2003, her appeal was upheld. On Jan. 13, 2006, the Korean Supreme Court upheld Snider’s acquittal for a second time.
Snider claims she lost almost two years of her life, including opportunity to complete undergraduate degree program and lost income. She also claims she was subjected to extradition, trial and incarceration in a foreign country for a crime for which she was acquitted three times.
Snider also claims the agents deliberately fabricated and coerced false admissions and reports which formed the basis for extraditing, charging, prosecuting, and imprisoning her.
The 22-page suit also says the agents caused severe emotional distress to Snider. She seeks compensatory damages above $75,000, punitive damages and court costs.