Thomas not guilty of homicide in road rage death

Published May 14, 2014 at 3:20 pm (Updated May 14, 2014 at 3:20 pm)

A Washington County jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding an ex-soldier not guilty of homicide in the road rage shooting death of a Washington man.

Brandon Thomas, 32, of Upper St. Clair was acquitted in the October 2012 shooting death of 55-year-old Vaughn Simonelli in the parking lot of the Shop 'n Save supermarket in Washington. He claimed Simonelli was the aggressor and he shot him in self-defense while inside his vehicle.

Thomas was found guilty of possession of drug paraphernalia for having five empty stamp bags in his sock at the time of the shooting. Judge Katherine Emery sentenced him to 6 to 12 months in prison on that charge with credit for time he has served in jail since the shooting and ordered that he be released today (May 14).

Attorney Frank Walker told the jury in his closing argument that Thomas had his life interrupted in his prime and that a family has lost a loved one.

Walker said Thomas, an Army veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, was followed, threatened and attacked while sitting in his Hummer and that Thomas, within his rights under the Castle Doctrine law, defended himself, firing two shots that hit Vaughn Simonelli, 55, of Washington.

Pennsylvania’s Castle Doctrine law was amended in 2011 to allow a person to use deadly force for self-defense in his vehicle as well as his home if he believes he it is necessary to protect himself from death or serious bodily injury.

“What were Thomas’ options?” Walker asked. “He stayed on scene. He didn’t flee. He called 911.”

Walker said the prosecution’s case was “riddled with reasonable doubt.” He reminded the jury that the key witness, the man that said he saw Thomas shoot Simonelli while outside of his vehicle, couldn’t be located for the trial. And while the prosecution attempted to paint Thomas as a drug user, Walker said the topic was never brought up during the initial interviews.

First Assistant District Attorney Chad Schneider disagreed.

“What did Vaughn Simonelli do that he had to die that day?” Schneider said.

Schneider then addressed the inconsistent eyewitness accounts. He said each person saw the incident at a different time, at a different location and remembered things differently over the course of events.

“That must be taken into consideration.”

Thomas was accused of fatally shooting Simonelli on Oct. 18, 2012 in the parking lot of the Shop 'n Save as a result of a road-rage incident that occurred along Jefferson Avenue near the PNC Bank. Witnesses testified that Thomas was driving erratically and cut off Simonelli’s vehicle. They said Simonelli confronted Thomas on Jefferson and that Thomas drove away. Simonelli followed Thomas to the parking lot, blocked him into a parking space, and confronted him again. Testimony was conflicting on what happened next, but Thomas fired his weapon twice, killing Simonelli with the first shot.

Thomas told investigators that Simonelli was the aggressor and attacked him while he was sitting in his Hummer.

Schneider argued that while the testimony is inconsistent, none of the witnesses reported seeing Simonelli strike Thomas.

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