A 34-year-old man convicted of killing his estranged wife and mother-in-law and setting their home on fire was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole, a punishment surviving relatives said makes them feel safe for the first time in months.
Tuan Ngoc Le has been in custody since he killed the women during a knife-wielding attack July 6, 1994, at the house the victims shared with relatives in an unincorporated area near Anaheim.
Relatives said Friday they had been terrified he might some day be released.
"We feel good now," said Biet Phan, whose sister and mother were killed. "He'll be in jail his whole life."
Family members, unable to sell the home on Hearth Lane, have been tormented by nightmares and afraid to turn their lights out at night since the killings, Phan said. The defendant's 5-year-old daughter was so traumatized she can't bear to stay in the family's house, and is living with relatives in another city, according to a court sentencing report.
A Superior Court jury in October convicted Le of first-degree murder in the death of his wife and of second-degree murder in the death of his mother-in-law. He also was convicted of arson, for setting a lawn mower on fire in the family's living room after the attack.
Le had lived briefly with his wife and child in the home after emigrating in 1993 from Vietnam, but he soon moved out because of a dispute with his brother-in-law, who owned the home, and tensions over his inability to find work, according to trial testimony.
In the pre-sentencing report, family members alleged Le had beaten his wife while the couple lived in Vietnam. They said they had hoped the woman would be protected by domestic violence laws once she immigrated to the United States.
Deputy Public Defender Roger Alexander contended that Le never planned to murder anyone but ended up in a "frenzy" that morning when his wife refused to listen to his pleas that she return to him. Alexander urged a prison sentence that would have made Le eligible for parole after 26 years, when Le will be 60. Two jurors wrote letters to the judge supporting that punishment.
But Superior Court Judge Richard L. Weatherspoon denied the request for any parole, calling Le a "serious danger to society."
Prosecutor Clyde Patrick Von Der Ahe had urged the maximum sentence, citing the viciousness of an attack he said was premeditated.
The prosecutor has said Le killed his estranged wife, Loi Thanh Phan, and his mother-in-law, Sao Thi Nguyen, out of selfishness and jealousy, then set their home on fire to get back at the family he believed had destroyed his marriage.
Le couldn't stand that his 30-year-old wife wouldn't leave her family and come back to him with their daughter and was upset she was car-pooling to work at an electronics firm with another man, the prosecutor said during the trial. The mother was slashed repeatedly when she attempted to help her daughter, according to testimony of relatives, including children, who witnessed the attack.