Herndon man who strangled wife, put body in suitcase gets 7 years

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 10:12 PM

A Herndon man who strangled his wife, put her body in a suitcase, then surrendered to police and immediately confessed was convicted of voluntary manslaughter Wednesday and sentenced to seven years in prison by a Fairfax County jury, which rejected his defense that he was insane.

The trial of Jamie A. Kuhne, 35, was emotionally charged, as jurors learned of a horrific childhood marked by repeated sexual abuse by his paternal grandfather and repeated beatings by his father.

A defense psychologist said that Kuhne was mentally ill and suffered from a dissociative disorder perhaps linked to his childhood trauma. Another defense expert said that Kuhne also had Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.

So Kuhne's attorneys asked a jury to find him not guilty by reason of insanity. "Jamie did not understand the nature, character and consequences of his act at the time," defense attorney Joseph T. Flood said. "His mind was not under the control of reason."

Fairfax prosecutors asked the jury to convict Kuhne of the first-degree murder of Minghua Zheng, 36. The prosecutors' mental expert said that Kuhne was not insane.

"Mental illness is not a license to kill in the commonwealth of Virginia," Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Katherine E. Stott said. "Please don't confuse the irrational matter of someone committing murder with someone who's insane. They're two different things."

The facts of the slaying, inside the couple's apartment near Herndon Parkway on Dec. 10, were not in dispute. The couple met in graduate school at George Mason University, were married in August 2007, had a son the next year and were in the process of divorcing.

Kuhne told police that he and Zheng began arguing over the terms of their divorce and that Zheng threatened to take their son to China and keep him from Kuhne forever. Kuhne said that the last thing he remembered was stepping toward his wife. When he awoke, he was on top of her, his hands around her neck, and she was dead.

Kuhne told police that he folded Zheng into a large suitcase and placed it on the apartment balcony so their son would not see her. In the morning, he took his son to day care, then returned home and wrote a note that said, "I did not mean for this to happen, I only wanted her to stop saying she would take my son away from me."

The note detailed where the boy was and provided names and contact information for people who might take care of him, as Kuhne was estranged from his family. He took the note to Herndon police headquarters, handed it to a woman at the front desk and then gave a videotaped confession, although he said he could not remember the actual killing.

As Flood and fellow defense attorney James G. Connell began meeting with Kuhne in jail and unspooling his life story, they felt that something wasn't quite right. In his statement to Sgt. Dennis Royal, for example, Kuhne was asked, "Are you working?" and Kuhne answered, straightforwardly, "No, I'm here with you."

Neuropsychologist Joette James examined Kuhne and determined that he had Asperger syndrome, characterized by difficulty interacting with others, noticing visual cues, and understanding humor or sarcasm.

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