Mysterious Murder of U.S. Student in Korea

A little over a year ago, Kenzi Snider became the first U.S. citizen ever to be extradited to stand trial in South Korea after being charged with and confessing to the murder of a fellow student.

But the country's courts ruled her confession inadmissible and acquitted her twice, and now a single decision from that country's Supreme Court will determine whether or not she will ever return home a free woman.

In the spring of 2001, Snider, then a 19-year-old student at Marshall University in West Virginia, was an exchange student at Keimyung University in Taegu, South Korea. Jamie Penich, 21, a junior from the University of Pittsburgh, was also in that program.

After just two weeks of classes, a group of six students, including Penich and Snider, went to the capital city of Seoul for what was supposed to be a fun weekend trip.

They found a cheap motel in Itaewon, the heart of Seoul's nighttime entertainment, right next to the big U.S. military base. It was St. Patrick's Day when they arrived, and there was a rowdy crowd on the streets.

The group wound up at a bar, hanging out with American G.I.s, and partying long past midnight. Penich and Snider were the last to leave the bar, at around 3:00 am.

Back at their motel, a seedy place frequented by G.I.s and prostitutes, Penich decided to take a shower to sober up before going to bed, Snider said. Snider, who was staying in another room with another roommate, said she checked on Penich before she went to bed.

But the next morning, Penich's roommate made a horrifying discovery. Penich had been brutally beaten to death — stomped so hard that her face was unrecognizable. Some of her teeth were knocked out, and her blood was splattered on the bathroom walls.

Restored Memories?

By February 2002, Penich's body had been returned home and laid to rest in her hometown of Derry, Pa.

Meanwhile, two FBI agents and an officer from the U.S. Army's criminal investigations division, the CID, had contacted Snider to clear up some inconsistencies in her original statement to police in Korea. They met with her in a motel room in Huntington, W. Va.

One of the FBI agents also seemed oddly interested in her dreams, Snider said. "The one dream I had shared was about a train," Snider said. "He said, 'Well, that's interesting, because when a female dreams about a train, it's a sign of sexual conflict.' "

Snider continued the questioning into a second day, when the FBI agent who was interested in her dreams became insistent on proving there was a sexual encounter between her and Penich on that night, she says.

She says the agents discouraged her from contacting an attorney, and to prove her innocence, she agreed to answer more questions.

"He asked me, 'Well, who kissed first?' " Snider said. "I was like, 'Well we didn't kiss.' But I'm thinking, 'They said they have evidence, there must be some reason he's asking this,' I'm thinking, 'Well, I know that I wouldn't kiss her, so well maybe she kissed me first,' and I said, 'Well, she kissed me."

Snider now says this didn't happen. But she says she agreed because she thought the agents were "helping me get my memories back."

A story evolved in which Snider admitted she got angry and killed Penich after Penich tried to unbutton Snider's pants in the hotel bathroom. "I said something like, 'I lift my foot and I bring it down on her face,' " said Snider.

She believed she was guilty, and signed a written confession. Snider repeated her confession to another FBI agent 22 days later, and signed another statement.

It was at first hard to believe, said Penich's father Brian, but now he and his wife accept it. However, they refuse to believe it was Penich who made the advance.

"I believe it was a fantasy on Kenzi's part … and she didn't get what she wished for, so she killed Jamie," said Penich's mother Patty.

The Peniches thought that Snider would stand trial in the United States, but a new extradition treaty meant Snider would be sent to South Korea to face charges.

In October 2002, Snider and the agents testified at the federal court house in Huntington. Snider repeated her confession, but added that she was now confused about whether or not she was guilty.

After two days, the judge made his ruling. He found probable cause for extradition. Two months later, Snider arrived in South Korea, to be tried for murder.

Possibilities and Perspectives

In Korea, Snider says she was increasingly confused if the confession she made of killing Penich was real or imagined. It was only when police took her back to the hotel in Itaewon that she says she realized there was no way she could have killed Snider.

"The pictures I had in my head would not fit in this bathroom," she said. Afterwards, she recanted her confession.

Then, in a stunning development, a judge ruled that Snider's confession in the United States was inadmissable under South Korean law. The judge also reduced the charges to manslaughter.

Simply confessing to police is not enough in South Korea, says Brendon Carr, an attorney for the law firm representing Snider. "The accused is brought to the public prosecutor's office to recount the confession one more time," he said, "which is thought to preserve the rights of the accused."

So Snider faced a trial on manslaughter charges which lasted 4 ½ months in Seoul. She was found not guilty, and released from jail, but she wasn't free to fly home just yet.

Prosecutors decided to appeal the verdict. Last fall, a South Korean appellate court upheld the acquittal, citing evidence that someone else committed the crime. Now, prosecutors' last chance is with the South Korean supreme court.

Carr said he confident of Snider innocence because "there was blood all over the room, all over Jamie, all over everywhere. Not on Kenzi."

Police superintendent Hwang Woon-ha said he remains convinced of Snider's guilt. "We believe that when Kenzi struck Jamie, Jamie fell and hit the back of her head on the tub, thereby losing consciousness," Hwang said.

"So she stomped on her. But this does not necessarily mean that she would get blood all over her clothing. The crime is still possible."

‘I Did Not Kill Your Daughter’

Penich's parents also remain convinced of Snider's guilt. Brian Penich says if he could talk to Snider, he would tell her, "You have to live the rest of your life with this burden, and if you can do that, you're not a person."

Patty Penich says, "What she did … it's unforgivable and she will never be forgiven."

Snider says she's convinced that the Peniches hate her, and has had no recent contact with them.

But if she could talk to them, she says she would tell them, "I'm sorry for the pain that any false hope could have caused them. And I hope they find out who did it."

"I did not kill their daughter," Snider said.