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Relatives of heiress murder victim question plea deal, sentencing

Colorado heiress Nancy Pfister shown pictured prior to being bludgeoned to death with a hammer by one of her tenants.
Colorado heiress Nancy Pfister shown pictured prior to being bludgeoned to death with a hammer by one of her tenants.
Photo image credit: Denver

Suzanne Pfister and her niece Julianna Pfister were in the courtroom on Friday when one of three alleged murderers of their loved one pleaded guilty to killing Buttermilk Ski area heiress Nancy Pfister, 57.

And the sister and daughter of the murdered Aspen socialite were visibly and verbally upset to learn that William Trey Styler III, 66, would be held in a medical unit while he served out his 20-year sentence for taking a hammer to the head of their sleeping loved one over a rent dispute of her Colorado property, according to a June 20 ABC News report.

It's second degree murder. I don't understand that. It upsets me. There are such things as an eye for an eye," Julianna Pfister (the victim's daughter) told Pitkin County Judge James Boyd when he asked her to approach his bench during court proceedings.

The Pfister family appear as perplexed as many other murder victim's families are when murder degree terms and sentencing are discussed in a court room involved in determining the innocence or guilt (and punishment or release) of a suspect in the death of their loved one.

In Colorado, as in many other states, prosecutors can choose to reduce down a charge of first-degree murder to second-degree murder in order to obtain a confession from a guilty party. And this is a preferred means of gaining a conviction, if at all possible, for at least two important reasons.

First, it saves local tax payers the money it would cost to put on a trial, which can get unusually long if more than one party has to be tried (there would have been three people tried altogether in this case). And if the case draws unusual attention from the press and the world, as this one appears to be doing, it can make the trial longer and more expensive.

And while cutting a plea deal in such a situation may seem a callous way for prosecutors to look at a murder case, they have to consider this aspect of a trial or else they could spend as much as $2 million trying to get justice in a case, like Arizona has done in the Jodi Arias trial so far, according to this January 2014 report from the Huffington Post.

Typically, prosecutors do not even consider cutting a plea deal with a defendant in a murder case unless at least one or more of the following is also a consideration: They have limited tax payer support in putting on a costly trial, they lack a witness to the crime, they are unsure a jury will convict, or they fear a potential mistrial--or that the defendant might die due to ill health before he can be convicted.

So cutting a deal with a defendant in exchange for a guilty plea typically involves more than one important consideration for prosecutors, such as whether they also need to free up the local jurisdiction's law enforcement and judicial system personnel from having to keep to a lengthy and time consuming court schedule of appearance. And which they may know that the town may not be able to afford. They may also be aware of an unusually high number of current cases in need of attention from limited local and county personnel.

And third, a confession plea deal achieves a guilty verdict in the most expeditious means possible for all involved, instead of risking a potential loss of justice by a jury that can't make up their mind about guilt if the case does go to trial. No one in the criminal justice system really wants a victim or their family to lose out on justice, but they realize that sometimes a little justice beats no justice at all.

In this case, the confessing defendant, Trey Styler, suffers from a health condition, according to Pitkin County District Attorney Sherry Caloia, who the Chicago Tribune quoted as saying, "Due to his age and medical condition, we believe this will be a life sentence for him."

So gaining a guilty admission from Styler will ensure he goes to prison for the murder of Nancy Pfister, rather than getting away with the crime due to any sympathy the jury may have felt for him and shown him in court under the circumstances.

But murder victim family members, like those of this Colorado victim, often feel as Nancy's daughter do: that murder is an "eye for an eye" kind of crime. And that Styler, his wife, and the banker accused in the case with them, should all suffer a fate similar to the victim: death.

In addition, the Buttermilk heiress' other sister Christina, who listened to the proceedings by phone, expressed dismay that the accused man would serve out his sentence in a medical unit rather than a prison cell, where she feels he belongs.

I saw Mr. Styler walking around just fine before he was arrested, and I am not interested in him being comfortable," Christina Pfister said.

She likely isn't happy that the defendant's wife Nancy Styler, and the defendant banker in the case, Kathy Carpenter, will now have the murder charges against them dropped in the Nancy Pfister murder case as a result of Mr. Styler's guilty confession and plea deal with the district attorney's office.

And one can sympathize with a victim's family in such instances, as they must not only deal with a future in which their loved one is not alive to live out their days in a medical unit, like Styler will get to do. But they must also deal with the fact that even if the defendant's wife and banker friend did play a role in their loved one's murder, they will never have to serve time for it in light of his confession and plea deal. That can be a bitter pill for a victim's family to swallow.

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