Review: “Murder In Room 103” By Harriet Ryan

Woo hoo! Two non-review request reads in a row! 🙂

Considering this book was published in 2006 and covers a murder committed in 2001, why did I pick it up? Several reasons, really.

First and foremost, my study of taekwond-do has led to have a great appreciation for Korean culture. This book, being the story of an American exchange student killed in South Korea, was perfect for feeding the knowledge horse.

Second, I have always loved true crime books. They are very fascinating to me, especially since I’ve long been interested in abnormal psychology (serial killers too, although that’s unrelated to this book).

Finally, it was cheap on AbeBooks. So. Why not? 🙂

OK, on to the review, finally.

Early in the morning following St. Patrick’s Day 2001, Jamie Penich, an exchange student from Derry, Pennsylvania, who was studying in South Korea, was brutally murdered. Based on the evidence, Penich was stomped to death by someone wearing boots. Although she was found naked, no sexual assault was suspected.

In the United States, the discovery of such a scene would have seen a bevy of specialists descend on the isolated and uncompromised crime scene. They would catalog in individual sealed baggies or specimens, every hair, fiber, blood splatter, etc. Photos would be made of the entire scene before anything was so much as touched or moved.

Anyone involved or suspected would have been quarantined, their clothes gathered up and likewise cataloged so they could be analyzed. Statements would have been taken from all of them, and their movements would have been limited until the police were sure someone was or was not a suspect.

Not so for South Korea in 2001. Although they have made great strides since then, their process at the time was lacking. All clothing was thrown into a single bag. Penich’s body was moved in an attempt to identify her based on a tattoo on her back, before her body position had even been photographed. In order to study the crime scene, her body was wrapped in a sheet and moved to another room, basically preventing some spit on Penich’s chest from ever undergoing DNA analysis. Their methods of basing so much on blood type rather than DNA analysis, caused the destruction of several blood samples as the process of typing the blood destroys the sample. Blood type alone, as opposed to DNA evidence, isn’t enough to convincingly identify a perpetrator. They even had policemen tracking blood throughout the scene, contaminating what might have been a perpetrator’s footprints with their own.

With that as the backdrop, the story continues as investigators make their way through American soldiers at a local base, the other exchange students in the group, and other suspects. Eye witnesses are unreliable and inconsistent. The investigation just basically blindly plods along with lack of hard evidence being their biggest shortcoming.

So the investigation falters until Kenzi Snider, a friend of Penich’s for the brief two weeks they were both exchange students in South Korea, is charged with the crime over 18 months later, while she’s a student at Marshall University in West Virginia.

However, charging her with the crime isn’t a slam dunk conviction, as those involved eventually learn. If you’re not familiar with the case, you’ll just have to read the book to see where it goes from there.

One of the things I really liked about this book is Ryan’s delving into the principles’ pasts, presents, and what led them to be who and where they were at the time of the crime. It’s very humanized, very personal. You can feel the pain the Penich’s suffered following the loss of their daughter. You can feel the struggles of the investigative team. You can feel the anguish and uncertainty felt by Snider’s family as they go through the accusations and legal processes.

It also highlights the strong cultural differences between South Korea and the United States. While it’s easy enough to point at the trial process for Snider following her extradition to South Korea and say it’s wrong, Ryan does a good job of explaining why those differences exist. I even learned something new about how prisoners have color-coded tags and jumpsuits so you can tell at a glance if they’ve been convicted or are merely accused and awaiting trial, as well as be able to tell what type of crime (assault, extortion, murder, etc.) the prisoner is accused of.

I really enjoyed the book, without a doubt. Very in-depth and balanced, it doesn’t try to paint the author’s perspective of what she believes really happened.

As a homework assignment for those of you who complete the book, make a note to do some Googling to see what happened legally since the book’s publication. Where this book ends is hardly the end of the story.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)


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