Juvenile who killed elderly Spokane woman given new sentence

click to enlarge Vy Thang showing a picture his niece drew for him. - MITCH RYALS
Mitch Ryals
Vy Thang showing a picture his niece drew for him.

Vy Thang, the man given a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole for a murder he committed at 17, was given a chance at release Wednesday. 

Thang was originally convicted in 1999 (and again in 2003 after a retrial) of aggravated murder in the first degree when he broke into the home of an 85-year-old woman. Superior Court Judge Gregory Sypolt re-sentenced Thang to 35 years to life. That means Thang is eligible to appear in front of the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board in 2031.

A pre-sentencing investigation from the Department of Corrections conducted in June of this year recommended Thang be released when he is eligible. 

Ten of Mildred Klaus' family and friends packed into the court room Wednesday morning to say something on behalf of their mother and grandmother.

"I'm a person who believes in forgiveness, but let's not confuse forgiveness for giving somebody a third chance to kill," says one of Klaus' grandsons, J.J. Klaus. He is referring to the fact that prior to Klaus' murder, Thang escaped from a juvenile detention facility where he was locked up for burglarizing and kicking another elderly woman, who survived the attack.

"The effect this has had on our family has been really hard. It would be even harder if he were out on the streets," J.J. Klaus says.

When given his chance to speak, Thang first turned toward Mildred Klaus' family: 

"I'm sorry this is the third time you've had to go through this. I was a coward, and I have no excuse for what I did," he told them. "Mrs. Klaus was more than a victim. She was your mother, she was your grandmother, she was a friend to so many people and I took that away."

He then turned to the judge: 

"After hearing the victim's family speak, I don't know if I deserve to get out," he said. "I would like to. Given the chance, I would like to help others, but I just don't know anymore." 

Thang's new sentence came about because of a 2012 United States Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life without parole sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Washington state Legislature subsequently tweaked its laws to reflect the Court's decision in 2014. 

In his argument before the court, prosecuting attorney Larry Steinmetz argued for the judge to maintain Thang's life without parole sentence by drawing distinctions between the defendant in the Supreme Court case and Thang. The defendant, Evan Miller who was 14 at the time he committed the murder, had also been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, had been abused, and had attempted suicide multiple times. None of those circumstances applied to Thang, Steinmetz argued. 

There are 29 people in Washington state who could get new sentences. As of September 23, two were re-sentenced to life without parole, five were given 25 to life, which means they have a chance of release after a hearing in front of a parole board, and one (Thang) was given 35 to life and one was given 40 years.