On a spring day in 1994, a retired German couple who’d travelled to California to see their daughter were sightseeing in the San Jacinto Mountains when they were robbed and shot by three young men. Gisela Pfleger, 64, died in the attack. Her husband, 62-year-old Klaus, was severely injured.
One of the assailants pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years to life. The two others received life with no chance for release, and the Pfleger family believed justice had been done. Then a U.S. Supreme Court ruling changed things.
Almost two years ago now, the high court issued a decision that made more than 2,000 inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles eligible for possible resentencing and release. In that ruling and others , the court said that mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual for offenders under 18 and that all but the rare irredeemable offender should have a chance at parole. The justices pointed to brain science research that finds teens lack impulse control and may engage in reckless behaviour without fully understanding the consequences.
While inmates and their supporters have celebrated this opportunity, the decision has revived painful memories for victims’ families. Some have already returned to court to face those who killed their loved ones and to oppose their release.
Thongxay Nilakout, who at 17 was the gunman in the Pflegers’ shooting, is among those getting a chance at freedom. Birte Pfleger, the couple’s daughter, plans to testify against him at his resentencing hearing, likely to take place in 2018.
Pfleger, a history professor at California State University, Los Angeles, reached out to The Associated Press after reading its coverage of the Supreme Court ruling and its aftermath, and shared her story of a loved one left behind to pick up the pieces. In an essay she wrote for the AP, Pfleger talks about her perspective on the ruling, the impact of the crime on her family and what she thinks about the prospect of the shooter one day going free. The following are excerpts. Nilakout’s public defender declined comment.
THE EFFECT OF THIS CRIME ON HER FAMILY:
“My father lives with the scars of the events every day of his life, both literally and figuratively. It still amazes me that he managed to get help after being shot twice in the face and once in the back. He got into his car, drove down the hill and found someone with a mobile phone – still pretty unusual in 1994. Surgeons saved his life and his ability to eat and speak … but to this day the lower left side of his jaw is numb, he drools when he eats, drinks or speaks and always carries a cloth napkin to wipe his mouth. …
“More than his physical injuries, his soul has never recovered from losing his wife of nearly 30 years — from watching how she was shot, unable to help her. For more than 20 years, he has been asking himself why. Today, my father is 85 years old, lonelier than ever. He still misses his wife, and he has no answers. My sister and I lost our mom when we were in our 20s. We both celebrated our weddings and the birth of our children without her. My two young children do not have a grandmother. My 5-year old daughter was named after the grandmother she will never know. My 7-year old son often asks me about her and why she died. I don’t know what to say. How do you explain to a child that his grandmother was murdered?”
ON PREVIOUSLY TESTIFYING AGAINST PAROLE:
“In 2010 … I spoke at a hearing against granting parole (for offender Xou Yang). I had that same gut-wrenching feeling, almost numbness, profound sadness, desperation, and helplessness that I felt for years after my mother’s death. The hearing was straightforward with the parole board commissioner summarizing the crime and asking the prisoner what he had to say for himself. Parole was denied primarily because of the gravity of the offence. A notice for a second hearing arrived four years later and was scheduled for June 2015. This time I drove 200 miles to Avenal State Prison in rural central California. Unfortunately, my presence and my statement were utterly pointless. A federal mandate to reduce the number of inmates in California prisons — as well as court rulings demanding that parole boards must consider the continued danger to society rather than the crime committed — made my victim impact statement meaningless. (Yang) was released from prison in (November) 2015. I have to hope that he is using this undeserved second chance well.”
ON THE 2016 SUPREME COURT RULING THAT SET OUT THE POSSIBLITY OF NEW SENTENCES AND PAROLE FOR FORMER JUVENILE OFFENDERS:
“Some people argue that juveniles make stupid mistakes and that they deserve a second chance. I agree. But when is the crime too horrendous to count as a mistake? In my view, shooting someone in cold blood is not a stupid mistake. Dropping out of high school, getting involved in drugs, or stealing designer sunglasses are actions that qualify as stupid mistakes. Robbing my parents, stealing their car, and pushing them to the ground would have been a stupid mistake. Conspiring to commit robbery and taking a loaded gun to use as a tool during that robbery is not a mistake. It shows planning and intent to use deadly force. Killing a 64-year old, 4-foot-11, 110-pound cancer survivor and leaving her husband for dead are unforgivable crimes that had and continue to have irreparable and irrevocable consequences.”
HOW THE RULING IS RESONATING WITH HER PERSONALLY:
“After the criminal proceedings ended sometime in spring 1996, I believed we could move on. I was wrong. Every time I moved, I registered anew with the California Department of Corrections as the next of kin to be notified if the prisoners were relocated, died or were eligible for parole. For years I participated in, attended or heard about events commemorating National Crime Victims’ Rights Week every April. In 2010 I touched my mom’s name engraved on the Victims Memorial Wall in Riverside. Now, I am confronted with the very real possibility that another man incarcerated for my mom’s death and my dad’s lifetime of suffering will be released. It is more painful than I can put into words.”
This story is part of an Associated Press series examining the aftermath of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opening the door for the possible release of former teen offenders sentenced to life without parole.