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Brian Pfister sentencing delayed over parole questions

Devin Kelly
Erik Hill/Anchorage Daily News

A two-day sentencing hearing for an Anchorage man convicted of manslaughter ended inconclusively Monday after the judge referred the case to a three-judge panel to rule on whether a lighter-than-normal parole is appropriate for the man.

Superior Court Judge Michael Spaan said the normal sentencing range is proper for 20-year-old Brian Pfister, found guilty by a jury in July of manslaughter, robbery and burglary for his role in a failed home-invasion robbery in 2011. But Spaan said Pfister had a better than average chance to rehabilitate himself and should be allowed to apply for parole earlier than the law would normally allow.

The sentencing panel of three Superior Court judges will be asked to rule on Spaan's findings that it would be "manifestly unjust" for Pfister to face the normal parole restrictions, where he couldn't be freed until he had served at least one-third of his sentence. Spaan said Pfister's youth, potential for rehabilitation and lack of previous criminal convictions would warrant earlier parole eligibility.

Spaan's ruling delays final sentencing, but Assistant District Attorney James Fayette said Pfister would be ordered to prison for at least 14 years, and he otherwise would have to serve a minimum of four years before appearing before a parole board. Spaan is seeking to adjust that parole eligibility term.

Two of Pfister's accomplices in that robbery, Maurice Johnson and Joseph Trantham, were shot dead by the owner of the mobile home, and the law allows Pfister to be charged in their deaths. At trial, Fayette argued that Pfister recklessly caused the deaths of Johnson and Trantham, both 19, by helping the two men enter an East Anchorage mobile home with a marijuana-grow operation.

Pfister knew the owner of the trailer, Larry James, because James' son was dating Pfister's sister, Fayette said. He said Pfister had been inside the trailer and seen the marijuana plants, and came up with the plan to target James. The prosecutor also said Pfister should have foreseen that James would have a gun.

Lawyers for Pfister argued he only played a minor role in the scheme and was influenced by Trantham, who they said was 18 months older and needed money.

According to testimony at trial, Johnson and Trantham forced their way inside Larry James' mobile home in the middle of the night on Nov. 10, 2011, and demanded he hand over money and drugs. One of them hit James in the face, cutting his nose.

James walked to a safe in his bedroom, pulled out a .38-caliber revolver, and fired three shots.

Police found Trantham's body hanging from a pole outside the mobile home, his clothes caught, and Johnson dead in the parking lot of a nearby gas station.

Pfister was supposed to act as the lookout, warning Johnson and Trantham if someone came, Fayette said during the trial. Another accused accomplice, 22-year-old Ursula Pico, was parked at the gas station with prosecutors said was the getaway car. She was later acquitted.

Pfister sat expressionless during the hearing. He apologized through a statement read by his attorney Monday morning.

"If I could change the events of that night, I would tenfold," the statement said, adding that Trantham was his best friend and Pfister considered him his brother. The statement said Pfister did not know Johnson, but "he did not deserve to die over some poor choices."

Pfister said in the statement said he now plans to attend college when he is released. He also asked the families of the victims to forgive him.

On the first day of the hearing, an emotional Vedra Trantham-Bechtol, the mother of Joseph Trantham, spoke to the court. Her husband stood behind her, rubbing her back.

"I am under no delusions of the part my son played in his own death," Trantham-Bechtol said tearfully.

She went on to describe her son's love of pranks, contagious laughter, and his loyalty to his friends, "which is ultimately what killed him." The death devastated her family and shook her surviving children -- for a year, her youngest child, now 5, was afraid to sleep alone Trantham-Bechtol said.

Trantham-Bechtol added that she can't turn back time or get her son back.

"I can do one thing. I can forgive you, Brian," she said, turning to face Pfister directly. Pfister looked back at her.

"And anyone else who was involved. I will forgive you because that is the way I will find peace. I pray that one day you find peace," Trantham-Bechtol said.

She said she was thankful she did not have to make the sentencing decision because she herself didn't know what Pfister's punishment should be.

In arguing for the case to go before a three-judge panel, Pfister's lawyer, Lyle Stohler, pointed to his client's progress in completing his education. When Pfister was arrested, he had completed very little of his high school education, Stohler said.

In two years while incarcerated, Pfister earned his GED and is on track to be awarded a high school diploma in May, Stohler said.

"That's not just potential for rehabilitation, that is actual acts toward rehabilitation," Stohler said.

Spaan said the rehabilitation aspect played an important role in his decision to refer the case to the three-judge panel. He noted that in addition to the completed schooling, Pfister has no previous criminal record, and his apology letter showed acceptance of responsibility.

"He is on the right track," Spaan said.

But the judge also observed that two men are dead, and Pfister was "instrumental" in putting together the plan that killed them.

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.