A Texas County man was sentenced to life without parole for the 2017 murder of a transgender teen.
Andrew Vrba, now 21, was sentenced Friday in Greene County Judge Calvin Holden’s courtroom.
Vrba is the fourth and final co-defendant found guilty in the killing of 17-year-old Ally Steinfeld.
Vrba previously had confessed to stabbing Steinfeld on Sept. 20 2017, in Texas County, six days after Steinfeld’s family reported the teen missing and before law enforcement realized Steinfeld was dead.
Vrba was found guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in a bench trial in August.
Steinfeld was referred to by her birth name and as a male in court and throughout court documents. But according to Steinfeld’s public Facebook and Instagram accounts, she was a transgender woman and had transitioned to using the name Ally Lee Steinfeld before her death. Steinfeld had also talked to her family about being transgender, her sister told the News-Leader in 2017.
Steinfeld’s family participated in the hearing via video conference.
In her victim’s impact statement at the sentencing hearing, Steinfeld’s mom Amber Boswell sobbed.
“My son said that (Vrba) was the only best guy friend he ever had,” Boswell said. “I miss my son every day.”
Vrba, wearing jailhouse scrubs, appeared to be watching the video screen intently.
“It turned my whole world into a pure nightmare,” Boswell said. “My son was so nice and innocent. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
What happened at trial:Ally Steinfeld murder trial: Case now in judge’s hands
Vrba’s mother Ozell Spicer was in the courtroom and also addressed the judge.
“I loved this boy since before he was born,” Spicer said. “I’ll always love him. I’ll always support him.”
“I wake up every day — this is a nightmare. I wish it never happened,” Spicer said. “I am so sorry to (Steinfeld’s) family. I know he did nothing to deserve it.”
For the first time since his trial began, Vrba addressed the court. He spoke to Steinfeld’s family.
“There is no amount of times I could say sorry,” Vrba said. “I loved him as a brother.”
“I regret it every day,” he said. “I promise you I’m sorry.”
Vrba was accompanied in court Friday by his attorneys Tom Jacquinot with the Capital Division of Missouri State Public Defenders, and Devon Pasley.
Prior to Holden handing down the sentence, Jacquinot called psychologist Dr. Lauren Richerson to testify about brain development and Vrba’s ADHD diagnosis.
Richerson explained that a person’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 24.
The prefrontal cortex which controls judgement and decision making is the last part of the brain to develop, Richerson said.
Asked if she believes an 18-year-old criminal offender presents “a greater potential for rehabilitation than an adult at 24 with a fully developed brain,” Richerson said yes.
Education would have more impact on the 18-year-old, she said.
Vrba was 18 when Steinfeld was killed.
Richerson testified that Vrba is diagnosed with ADHD and that “impulsivity is a hallmark of ADHD.”
Jacquinot asked Richerson if she saw evidence of Vrba’s disability and “impulsivity” in the interrogation tapes.
“Yes. I do not recall instances of calm deliberate responding,” she said. “This is speculation, but it appears to me he wanted approval, social approval.”
Texas County Prosecutor Parke Stevens asked Richerson how much the defense has paid her.
About $10,000, she said.
Jacquinot asked Holden to rule that a life sentence without parole for Vrba is a violation of the Eighth Amendment (the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause).
“The punishment is disproportionate and fundamentally unfair,” Jacquinot said. “It is an extreme punishment.”
Stevens reminded Holden that the mandatory sentence for first-degree murder was created by the Missouri legislature and upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court.
“I don’t like the statute,” Holden said. “In the end, you follow the law.”
“The statute is there. I don’t agree with it,” Holden said. “I know this sentence is disproportionate, but it is the sentence set down by the statute.”
Holden later addressed Steinfeld’s family regarding what he said about the mandatory sentencing statute.
“I don’t want you to think I downplay what happened to your son,” Holden said. “It was a terrible thing.”
Vrba, by his own admission, was the one who wielded the knife.
At question in Vrba’s trial was not whether he killed Steinfeld, but rather if the murder was premeditated — the difference between first- and second-degree murder.
The death penalty was taken off the table when Vrba agreed to a bench trial. Prosecutor Parke Stevens said that was also at the request of Steinfeld’s family.
The story garnered worldwide media attention, due in part to information made public by law enforcement in 2017. But contrary to information in the Texas County Sheriff’s Office’s original probable cause statement, there was no evidence — other than statements made by one of the co-defendants — that Vrba gouged out Steinfield’s eyes or mutilated her genitals.
According to Jacquinot, the detective who wrote the probable cause statement testified in a deposition that Stevens insisted those statements be included in the probable cause statement.
Three other co-defendants have already pleaded guilty and been sentenced for their roles in disposing of and hiding Steinfeld’s remains.
Briana Calderas pleaded guilty to abandonment of a corpse, concealing a felony and tampering with physical evidence in a felony prosecution. She was sentenced to eight years in 2019 and has since been paroled.
Schauer pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and abandonment of a corpse. She was sentenced to 20 years and is appealing her conviction.
James Grigsby pleaded guilty to abandonment of a corpse and was sentenced to four years. He has been paroled.