Former Virginia Tech student Yunsong Zhao was cleared of a gun charge during Monday’s trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
Zhao was an international student from China at Virginia Tech. He was arrested in January 2018 by Virginia Tech Police and was charged with possession of an AR-15 rifle with a magazine over 20 rounds, which is illegal for non-citizens and could lead up to five years in prison.
Blacksburg police officer Brian Wilson was asked by the Virginia Tech Police Department to travel to the firing range where he claimed he saw Zhao with an AR-15 rifle and a 30-round magazine. Zhao was arrested three days later.
It is legal to have the rifle and magazine separately, but it is against the law to have them together.
Three weeks prior to the arrest, Zhao received a warning from a Virginia Tech police officer for owning a 5-inch blade on campus, which violated the campus conduct code. A disciplinary hearing was scheduled, but Zhao was unable to attend the hearing because he was in jail on the gun charge. Virginia Tech later expelled Zhao and stripped him of his student visa, which allowed him to stay in the United States and study at Virginia Tech.
During Monday’s trial, Zhao pleaded not guilty to the charge of illegal possession of an assault rifle.
The commonwealth called three witnesses to testify on the stand.
The first witness was a salesman at Whitetail Outfitters. He claimed that he sold Zhao a 30-round magazine. However, he was unable to provide a receipt for the transaction.
The second witness was a manager at a local pawn shop. He claimed that Zhao purchased an out-of-state rifle. The rifle came with two 30-round magazines, but Zhao traded the magazines back to the shop for other gun accessories.
The third witness was Detective Wilson from the Blacksburg Police Department, who said that he saw Zhao with a rifle and a 30-round magazine. However, Wilson was unable to provide any physical evidence to support his claim.
The defense then filed a motion for the charge against Zhao to be dropped, claiming that the commonwealth did not provide enough evidence. Judge Marcus Long took the motion under advisement.
The defense called several witnesses to testify that Zhao did not own a 30-round magazine and also presented a video of Zhao firing the rifle at the gun range. The video indicated that Zhao fired 20 shots before the magazine was empty.
Zhao then took the stand in his own defense. He claimed that the Whitetail Outfitters salesman’s statement was mistaken, and he did not purchase a 30-round magazine. In addition, he said that he did not fire a 30-round magazine at the gun range.
Long granted that motion, saying that the prosecutors did not provide enough evidence.
About 40 protesters gathered in front of the Montgomery County Courthouse before the trial started. The protesters were wearing shirts and holding signs saying “Free Bellamy,” which is a Zhao’s nickname. The protesters claimed that Zhao was discriminated against because of his race and called for the firing of Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt.
“This case is about over-eager police trampling over a foreign student’s rights because he resembles a student who committed a mass shooting Virginia Tech’s campus in 2007,” wrote lawyer Mario Williams of Georgia, who previously represented Zhao.
The mass shooting at Virginia Tech was carried out by Seung-Hui Cho, who was South Korean, on April 16, 2007.
Zhao remains in immigration custody because his student visa is no longer valid. His immigration hearing is on Thursday in Arlington, Virginia.