SANTA ANA — White supremacist Gunner Lindberg on Friday became the first person in California to be sentenced to death because of a murder committed out of racial hatred.
Before pronouncing sentence in the unprecedented case, Superior Court Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald sought to dispel any lingering doubts that the convicted 22-year-old murderer deserved to die.
Reading from a graphic and chilling letter Lindberg had written to an out-of-state relative, the judge recounted how Lindberg boasted of stabbing, slashing the throat and stomping the skull of victim Thien Minh Ly on Super Bowl Sunday in January 1996.
Ly, a graduate of both UCLA and Georgetown University who had dreamed of one day becoming the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, was in-line skating on a high school's tennis court when he was accosted by Lindberg and a companion.
The letter, which Lindberg sent to a cousin in Missouri, begins almost nonchalantly. "Oh, I killed a Jap a while ago. I stabbed him to death at Tustin High School. . . .
"I walked right up to him and he was scared. I looked at him and said, 'Oh, I thought I knew you,' and he got happy that he wasn't gonna get jumped, then I hit him."
"I stabbed him in the side about seven or eight times. He rolled over a little, so I stabbed his back 18 or 19 times. Then he lay flat and I slit . . . his throat on his jugular vein."
Lindberg, sporting a shaved head and goatee, displayed no emotion as the judge read from the letter and then sentenced him to die. He offered no explanation or words of remorse to the victim's family, who during emotional pre-sentence testimony referred to him as "the monster" who took away their 24-year-old son and brother.
"Every single day since he was brutally murdered, we have been living in a nightmare," said the victim's 24-year-old sister, Thu Ly. "The unimaginable pain and devastation is beyond words."
Although it has been nearly two years since the murder of the Vietnamese American honor student, his family's grief is still palpable.
"I miss him every minute," sobbed Dao Huynh, the victim's 48-year-old mother, as she left the courthouse. "It's difficult to live. I want to die with him. Before I sleep I think of him. When I eat, I miss him. I can't believe he died."
During his trial, prosecutors convincingly argued that Lindberg chose Ly to knife and rob based on the color of his skin. He was stabbed more than 50 times, including 14 wounds to the heart.
Under California law, a convicted murderer may be sentenced to death only if the murder was committed in one or more of 21 "special circumstances" spelled out in state law. In Lindberg's case, the jury agreed that "the victim was intentionally killed because of his or her race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin" as the so-called hate crime special circumstance is defined.
It was the rambling, four-page letter that led police to make an arrest in the case. It was filled with details about the Ly murder that police said revealed knowledge that only the killer could possess.
The victim's younger brother, 21-year-old Thai Ly, said he "could recite the letter verbatim" and both he and his sister have returned to the tennis court where their brother died to try and imagine his final horrific moments.
A jury of nine women and three men recommended the death penalty for Lindberg in October after quickly convicting him of first-degree murder with the "special circumstance" allegations that the killing was a hate crime and also took place during the commission of a robbery.
The state attorney general's office confirmed Friday that this was the first time that a hate crime special circumstance had led to the death penalty.
"There's nobody else on death row with that circumstance," said Dane Gillette, senior assistant attorney general.
Judge Fitzgerald said Lindberg's crime showed a "high degree of cruelty, callousness and viciousness" and said that he did not believe the defendant's young age--he was 20 at the time of the murder--should be a factor in determining his punishment.
While Ly's family strongly urged execution for Lindberg, they said their reasons were more for the safety of society than for their own peace of mind.
"I'm happy the case is over and happy no innocent person will be hurt by him," the victim's mother said.
Ly was "the backbone and the pillar" of his family and an older sibling who "paved the way" for his sister and brother to excel academically, his sister said.
"His life was so bright and his future was so promising," Thu Ly said. "However, that all ended on that dark and miserable Super Bowl Sunday when the monster that is sitting in this room viciously took him away from us."
Prosecutor Debbie Lloyd said the family's grief "breaks everyone's heart."
"To take away someone who was so close to them, it's hard for them to function, hard to accept and hard to move on with life," she said.