Norwich man continues to insist his wife's fatal shooting was accident

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That Chihan "Eric" Chyung shot and killed his wife, Paige Ann Bennett, in the kitchen of their Taftville home on June 2, 2009, was never in question through 10 years of criminal court proceedings, which appeared to come to an end Thursday in New London Superior Court.

The 56-year-old former carpenter and biker was sentenced to 25 years in prison, having pleaded guilty to murder in February ahead of his second trial. He had been convicted of murder and manslaughter in 2017 and sentenced to 40 years, but the state Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2017 in an opinion that said the murder charge, which required intent to kill, was not consistent with the manslaughter charge, which could indicate an accidental death.

Chyung admitted to police almost immediately that he shot his wife of just a few weeks following a lengthy argument. He said his Glock 9mm pistol, which he had kept loaded in a bedroom drawer, discharged accidentally as he went to pack it into a suitcase.

The victim's family and friends, claiming Chyung showed signs of violence while dating Bennett, did not believe his story.

The prosecutor, David J. Smith, said the facts bear out the murder charge. Neighbors had testified they heard the couple arguing, then heard a scream and a bang. Chyung had left his wife on the kitchen floor for several hours before returning, at the advice of a friend, and calling police. The medical examiner indicated that Bennett's wound had been inflicted by a gun shot at close range.

Neither side was happy as Judge Hillary B. Strackbein handed down a sentence she said would at least provide finality and spare Bennett's family from years of appeals. Bennett's children, who were teens when their 46-year-old mother was killed, have their own children now, most of whom Bennett never got to meet. There will be no more birthday celebrations, backyard barbecues or holidays to share, said her daughter, Abby Gumbs, who added that the judicial system is flawed and unfair.

"Almost 10 year ago, you made a choice that affected all our families," she told Chyung.

Chyung had pleaded guilty under the Alford Doctrine, which indicates he doesn't agree with the state's version of the case. Dressed in a tan prison jumpsuit and allowed to sit down at the defense table, Chyung cried while reading his prepared statement. He said he had been so excited to meet Bennett, and this was not what life was supposed to be about.

"I know how everyone feels, because I feel it myself," he said. "This was, and forever will be, an accident. I have told the truth from the beginning, and the state is remiss."

Chyung said he took the plea deal only because he could have faced a longer sentence had he fought the murder charge and been convicted of manslaughter.

Chyung's defense has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, and his 81-year-old mother, Alice Whorley, and longtime friend, Dayna, who married him while he was incarcerated, said the state distorted the facts of the case and trumped up the charge after police initially arrested Chyung for manslaughter. They, too, said the court system is unfair.

Chyung's first trial attorney, Brian Woolf, had suffered a serious illness while the case was pending. His latest lawyer, the renowned defense attorney Hubert Santos, also is experiencing health problems.

Chyung's mother and wife said he accepted the deal that was offered by the court prior to the start of the trial because Santos, who was using a walker in court and said he was awaiting a hip replacement, was too ill to try the case.

Trent LaLima, an associate in Santos' law firm, said Thursday that Santos is fine. He said the case was not a slam dunk for the state and that there would have been risks for both sides had it gone to a jury. LaLima said Chyung was a hard worker with no criminal record who feels terrible he caused someone he loves to die.

Because of her age, Chyung's mother said she has little hope of being alive when her son is released. Chyung has to serve every day of his sentence, since there is no parole for murder, and has at least 15 years of prison time remaining after calculating time served.

The victim's mother, Sheila Monter, who had said at Chyung's first sentencing that he was a controlling man who needs to be incarcerated forever, died in 2015, not knowing that the verdict would be overturned and Chyung ultimately would receive a shorter sentence.

Though the criminal case appears to be over, court proceedings are likely to continue, since the victim's family is suing Chyung in civil court.

k.florin@theday.com

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