Three weeks after taking the case into consideration, a Greene County judge found the fourth and final co-defendant guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the killing of a transgender teen in Texas County.
Andrew Vrba previously had confessed to stabbing 17-year-old Ally 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, now 21, was charged with first-degree murder, armed criminal action and abandonment of a corpse for his alleged role in Steinfeld’s murder.
Vrba, by his own admission, was the one who wielded the knife. Three other co-defendants have already pleaded guilty and been sentenced for their roles in disposing of and hiding Steinfeld's remains.
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.
His defense team maintained that Vrba's reason for stabbing Steinfeld never changed when he talked to investigators: that Steinfeld had said threatening things about Vrba's pregnant girlfriend and unborn child.
The prosecution argued that Vrba changed his story multiple times, that the murder was premeditated and that Vrba had tried to poison Steinfeld but Steinfeld wouldn't drink the poison.
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 Vrba’s attorney Tom Jacquinot, the detective who wrote the probable cause statement testified in a deposition that Texas County Prosecutor Parke Stevens insisted those statements be included in the probable cause statement.
Before announcing his decision Friday morning, Judge Calvin Holden made clear that there was no evidence presented at trial that Steinfeld was tortured or mutilated or that Steinfeld's gender identity had anything to do with the killing.
Holden also detailed why he believed Vrba's actions were premeditated.
"As soon as the murder was completed and the victim was deceased, the defendant sent a text message to the victim's girlfriend to tell her it was done, meaning the death of the victim," Holden said.
"The defendant engaged in several actions prior to the day of the murder and the day of the murder that showed premeditation," Holden said. "The defendant talked with the victim's girlfriend. The defendant tried to use pills and alcohol on the victim and in fact looked up on the internet how to make the death quick and painless. The internet search indicates the defendant had the mental capacity to premeditate and reflect on his actions."
Vrba's case was originally assigned to a Crawford County court, but that judge was defeated in his re-election bid. The case was then moved to Greene County and assigned to Holden. Vrba opted for a bench trial a few months ago in a deal with prosecutors, who agreed not to seek the death penalty.
Vrba's sentencing is set for Nov. 20.
At the end of the trial, the defense filed a motion for sanctions due to a lack of "good faith" in complying with court orders to preserve evidence and to preserve all law enforcement notes. According to the motion, the Texas County Sheriff's Office lost or destroyed evidence, including cellphones belonging to the co-defendants and some of the lead officer's notes from his investigation.
The motion also said that Prosecutor Parke Stevens failed to comply with court orders that required the state to preserve all evidence and to preserve all investigatory notes. Holden overruled that motion at Friday's hearing.
Steinfeld was referred to by her birth name 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.
Prior to giving his decision, Holden took issue with how Greene County jail handled Friday's hearing.
Due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the jail, inmates are no longer brought into the courthouse.
Vrba and his defense attorneys were to participate in the hearing virtually from the jail. But there was only one phone in the room where Vrba was seated with his two attorneys — so only Vrba would be able to hear what the judge said and not his attorneys.
"All three have to be able to hear," Holden said, upon realizing the situation. "This is not acceptable."
"We spent days to work this out and they didn't have the forethought to know all three of you would need to hear," Holden said. "I would have thought they'd put you in a room with a speaker phone."
Holden told the deputies standing behind Vrba and the attorneys to let one of the attorneys have a cell phone so the trio could participate by speaker phone. The deputy said that wouldn't be allowed.
"Then you better get the sheriff on the phone," Holden said, frustrated.
Holden then went into his quarters for a few minutes. During that time, the deputies questioned one of Vrba's attorneys, asking if she had her cellphone. The whole scene was playing out on Facebook Live and the deputies wanted to know why, explained Prosecutor Parke Stevens, who was participating via Webex from his office in Texas County.
Several minutes later, Holden returned to the courtroom and announced he has the authority to order Vrba be brought to the courtroom and would do so.
"It's a shame that we have the worst jail in Missouri," the judge said.
Vrba and his attorneys soon arrived in the courtroom, and the hearing took place.