Man gets 22 to 25 years for 2016 Rodriguez killing in Amherst

  • Siblings Zulaika and Jorge Rodriguez talk with Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Matt Thomas, right, in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton on Wednesday, after Soknang Chham, 35, of New Salem pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the October 2016 shooting death of their brother, Jose M. “Joselito” Rodriguez, 31, of Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Soknang Chham, 35, of New Salem is lead into Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton, Wednesday, where he was sentenced in a 2016 shooting death. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Soknang Chham, 35, of Salem answers a series of questions from Hampshire Superior Court Judge Richard J. Carey in Northampton on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, before pleading guilty to manslaughter and other charges in the October 2016 shooting death of Jose M. "Joselito" Rodriguez, 31, of Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Siblings Zulaika and Jorge Rodriguez embrace in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, after Soknang Chham, 35, of Salem pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the October 2016 shooting death of their brother, Jose M. "Joselito" Rodriguez, 31, of Amherst. Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Matt Thomas, lead prosecutor for the commonwealth, is at right. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Soknang Chham, 35, of Salem is lead into Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, where he plead guilty to manslaughter in the October 2016 shooting death of Jose M. "Joselito" Rodriguez, 31, of Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Soknang Chham, 35, of Salem is lead into Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, where he plead guilty to manslaughter in the October 2016 shooting death of Jose M. "Joselito" Rodriguez, 31, of Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2019 10:49:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Family and friends of Jose “Joselito” Rodriguez packed the courtroom as his killer, Soknang Chham, pleaded guilty Wednesday to manslaughter and related charges before being sentenced to 22 to 25 years in prison.

The small confines of Hampshire Superior Court could barely contain those who came to the sentencing, with attendees squeezing onto benches, sometimes at the direction of court officers, who made clear that onlookers would not be permitted to stand.

Some of the onlookers also wore yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of Rodriguez with his children.

Despite its size, the crowd remained silent and largely motionless as people waited for Chham to enter his plea before Judge Richard Carey. But by the sentencing’s conclusion both outrage and tears were seen from its members.

Chham, 36, of New Salem, pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter and received a sentence of 18 to 20 years in state prison, as well as one count of assault and battery by discharging a firearm for which he received a sentence of 4 to 5 years in prison. The sentences will be served consecutively.

Additionally, Chham pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm (second offense), and unlawful possession of a firearm with at least two prior violent offenses. The sentences of 5 to 7 years in prison and 10 to 15 years in prison for those crimes will be served concurrently with the manslaughter sentence.

He was credited with 855 days of confinement.

Motive unclear

Chham shot Rodriguez, 31, at a party at Southpoint Apartments in Amherst in October of 2016.

In giving the facts of the case, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Thomas said the evening for Chham began at a bar in Amherst before he went to an after-party in a stairwell at Southpoint, where Rodriguez lived. Thomas said that no one described any kind of hostility or malice.

According to Thomas, Chham and his brother Soksot Chham had their backs to a wall when Donald Walker entered the party. When this happened, Thomas said, Chham began firing and that some witnesses said he shouted: “This is a setup.”

“The motive about this has never become clear,” said Thomas.

What Thomas made clear is that bullets hit both Rodriguez and Vichea Keo, another man at the party. Keo survived his injuries, but Rodriguez, who was hit three times, did not, with Thomas saying he succumbed to them almost immediately.

Before being shot, Thomas said that Rodriguez jumped from the stairs to the landing, essentially putting himself into harm’s way.

The Chham brothers fled the party and then left Massachusetts on a Greyhound bus. They were both arrested in Arizona and subsequently returned to Massachusetts.

Soksot Chham, 37, of New Salem, was indicted for accessory to murder after the fact, a charge that was later dropped by the district attorney’s office in 2017. He died in October of last year.

Soknang Chham was indicted on a raft of charges, including murder.

Sentencing argument

Prior to the sentencing, the mothers of Rodriguez’s children addressed the court. Both said Rodriguez was a good father.

“The love and bond that Joselito had with our children was unbreakable,” said Abby Crouse. “I wouldn’t have asked for a better father and life partner.”

“His children were his life,” said Ellisha Walker.

Crouse said her 6-year-old son with Rodriguez, Jose Jr., whom they called Manny, had asked to be called Jose when he started kindergarten in September, “because that’s his dad’s name.”

Walker has a young son with Rodriguez, who was 5 months old when Rodriguez died.

“Jose has three children who will have to deal with this for the rest of their lives,” she said.

Both women also spoke in favor of harsher punishment for Chham, but Thomas stood by the sentencing recommendation.

Jorge Rodriguez, Rodriguez’s older brother, told the Gazette that most of Rodriguez’s family and friends did not agree with the plea and that the family “wanted to take it to trial.”

Of the women’s suggestion, Thomas said, “They want remedies that aren’t before the court presently.”

Thomas noted Rodriguez’s reputation as a peacemaker, speculating that is what he was doing when he jumped from the stairs to the landing. And he said that the plea deal had the ability to offer a degree of peace to his family.

He also said that Keo, the other victim in the case, is in agreement with the sentencing recommendation and is seeking to move on.

As to why he was accepting a manslaughter plea, Thomas noted that the district attorney’s office, “could never really develop a motive” for the crime. He also noted that in the shooting, Chham didn’t seem to aim at anyone.

Thomas also emphasized the length of the sentence being suggested

“By the time he is released … he’ll be nearing 60,” Thomas said. “He will certainly be punished.”

He also revealed to the court that Keo had said Chham had abruptly fired a handgun at the side of a house at a party shortly before the fatal shooting.

“This is something that he’s done before,” he said.

Jorge Rodriguez said that on three other occasions his brother had stopped Chham from discharging a gun, after Chham pulled one out.

“My brother thought he could do it the fourth time, and the fourth time cost him his life,” he said.

Time in prison

Attorney William O’Neil, representing Chham, noted that Chham and Rodriguez were friends and that Chham had come to the United States as a refugee of Cambodian descent who was born in a Red Cross-run refugee camp, where his mother left the family. He was 8 when he immigrated, after which he became friends with Rodriguez, who came to Amherst from Puerto Rico with his family when he was 8.

“They became best friends,” O’Neil said.

Speaking after, Jorge Rodriguez denied this claim and said that Chham had been away from the community for 15 years before returning, and characterized him as an “outsider.”

“Fifteen years is a lifetime,” he said.

O’Neil detailed that Chham had a strained relationship with his father, had lived in various foster homes, and served time in state prison. He was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after this, but was eventually released.

Chham moved in with farmer Sarah Kohler and her family in New Salem in August of 2016. However, O’Neil said that “he became overwhelmed by life outside of prison.”

He said Chham has five children, by two women, and that they placed “unreasonable expectations” on him for the support of their children. He also said that Chham regularly consumed drugs and alcohol with his brother Soksot in Amherst, and that he was unable to obtain health insurance. O’Neil said that Chham’s recollection of the night of Rodriguez’s death is unclear, and that he was on ecstasy at the time.

As O’Neil talked, a number of people left the courtroom.

The issue of Chham’s immigration status, and how it would be affected by the conviction, also came up. O’Neil said that because Chham was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, it’s not clear where he could be deported to.

Kohler came to the court in support of Chham, who she said had sought help from his probation officer in the weeks before he committed the crime in part because he was having hallucinations. She said, however, that he received no assistance.

“This should never have happened,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.



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