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Murder conviction tossed in erotic asphyxiation case

The Supreme Court on Friday vacated the conviction of a former Nez Perce Sheriff's Office deputy accused of strangling his ex-wife to death.
Gavel

LEWISTON -- The Supreme Court on Friday vacated the conviction of a former Nez Perce Sheriff's Office deputy accused of strangling his ex-wife to death.

The justices ruled the lower court made a mistake when it did not allow Joseph Anthony Thomas Jr.'s defense to include evidence the victim had previously asked partners to choke her during sex.

Officers found Beth Irby Thomas dead inside her Lewiston home with a leather belt cinched tightly around her neck in April 2011.

Thomas said he had strangled his ex-wife during sex at her request the night she died. He said she continued to choke herself with the belt after he finished having sex with her and went out to his vehicle. When he returned, she wasn't breathing, he said.

Detectives spoke to two friends and a boyfriend of the dead woman, who told police that Irby Thomas enjoyed being "choked out" during sex. But the district court blocked those statements from being introduced as evidence, ruling they were irrelevant.

The court also barred any evidence of Irby Thomas participating in autoerotic asphyxia unless it involved a belt, rope, tie or similar device.

A psychologist testifying for the defense during the trial said that deaths associated with autoerotic asphyxia were often mistakenly assumed to be a homicide or suicide.

During jury deliberations, the jury sent a note to the court asking "did anyone other than Joe [Thomas] lay foundation that Beth [Irby Thomas] was, in fact, into autoerotic asphyxiation?"

The court responded jurors had to rely on their own memories. Thomas was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in March 2012.

But the Supreme Court ruled Thomas should get another chance.

"The excluded evidence would have corroborated Defendant's testimony that Decedent enjoyed erotic asphyxiation and was relevant to the issue of whether he intentionally killed her," the justices wrote in an opinion.

The court will decide whether to retry the case.