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Eric Chihan Chyung, who goes on trial for murder Monday in New London Superior Court, has never denied he shot and killed his newlywed wife, Paige Anne Bennett, in their Norwich home five years ago.
Defense attorney Brian J. Woolf said he told prospective jurors as much when he questioned them during the voir dire process.
"The issue before the jury is not whether Mr. Chyung had a gun or there was a death as a result of the bullet leaving the barrel," Woolf said in a phone interview Friday. "The issue here is whether Mr. Chyung did it intentionally or unintentionally."
Chyung, a 50-year-old carpenter from Norwalk, admitted to police that he killed his wife on June 2, 2009, after an extended argument at their home on 257 Norwich Ave. Bennett, a 46-year-old nurse's aide who had married Chyung just three weeks earlier, died of a single gunshot wound to the head.
Chyung told police he was getting ready to leave the home, at Bennett's request, when he shot her accidentally with his Glock 9 mm pistol, a gun he legally possessed. Testimony at the trial is expected to center around the Glock's safety features.
Norwich police initially charged Chyung with manslaughter, but Senior Assistant State's Attorney David J. Smith upgraded the charge to murder in June 2011. In taking the case to trial, Chyung turned down an offer from Smith to plead guilty in exchange for a 45-year prison sentence.
Attorneys for the state and Chyung have selected a jury of 12 regular members and four alternates, and testimony is scheduled to begin Monday before Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed. Smith and prosecutor Marisa Goldberg are expected to call police and other first responders to the witness stand as the trial gets underway and to play a recording of the 911 call Chyung made to police after the shooting. But before the state calls its first witness, the judge is expected to hear arguments on several pretrial motions submitted by defense attorneys Woolf and his associate, Kathleen E. Rallo.
The defense is seeking to keep jurors from hearing about a former girlfriend of Chyung who says he threatened her about 20 years ago with the same type of gun he used to kill Bennett in 2009. Pamela Febles of Stamford contacted Norwich police in September 2012 after reading a newspaper story about Chyung, whom she said she knew as Eric Chyung.
In a written statement she provided police, Febles, now 57, said she met Chyung through his mother, Alice Chyung, in 1993 and they dated for about 1½ years before moving in together. She said Chyung was jealous and controlling. She said she came home late from a Christmas party one day and Chyung pinned her against the wall and held a Glock 9 mm handgun against her head.
"I know it was a 9 mm Glock because Eric loved that gun and carried it on him a lot," Febles said in the statement.
She said she told Chyung to go ahead and shoot her and he tried to shove the gun in her hand, saying he didn't want to live if he could not have her. Febles said she went outside and got into her car and that Chyung ran after her, banged on the window with the butt of the gun and aimed it at her. Febles said she ran away and hid in a friend's s garage for six hours. She did not report the incident to police. Eventually, she and her son moved out of the home and she never saw Chyung again, according to the statement.
At the trial, the state could try to introduce the so-called "prior uncharged misconduct" in an attempt to show a "common scheme" of similar behavior between the Febles incident and the alleged murder or could attempt to use the information to attack Chyung's character during cross-examination should Chyung opt to testify on his own behalf.
Woolf argues that the prejudicial value of the statement outweighs its probative value, noting Febles only came forward decades later and has no proof to support her claims.
"This is a so-called allegation that took place over 20 years ago," Woolf said. "It's so remote in time and there's no allegation of discharge of a weapon."
In other pretrial motions, the defense is seeking to preclude the state from referring to Bennett as a "victim," claiming it could prejudice the jury and that the term complainant is preferable. Members of Bennett's family, who have attended many of Chyung's court appearances and have been working with the court's victim advocate, are expected to attend the trial.
The defense also is asking the judge to order law enforcement officers to wear street clothing rather than their uniforms, which Rallo claims in her written motion could "potentially bolster the credibility of such witnesses, and as a result be unduly prejudicial to the defendant in this matter."