On 10 October of this year, Phu Tién Nguyén was sentenced in Reykjanes District Court to 16 years in prison and fined 12 million ISK (about 200,000 USD) on the charge of manslaughter for stabbing Phong Van Vu to death during a fight at a party in Kópavogur on the night of 15 May 2005.
The short version of what transpired that night, according to Reykjanes District Court records, is as follows: Nguyén arrived at an apartment in Kópavogur with his wife and child between seven and eight in the evening where there was a small party already in progress. Phong Van Vu was in attendance as well. A discussion about the ages of the different people at the party came up.
An argument started between Nguyén and Vu – Nguyén told Vu that he should be shown respect, being older than he is, while Vu said that the rules of their homeland, Vietnam, did not apply in Iceland. Nguyén went to the toilet, and a short time later Vu came into the bathroom and asked, “Do you want to fight?” Nguyén alleged that Vu struck him in the face, knocking him to the ground, and kept hitting him. Nguyén struck back by stabbing Vu, ultimately killing him.
Nguyén alleges that the reason why he was carrying a knife was to place it under his child’s pillow when his family arrived home – by Vietnamese tradition, a knife under a child’s pillow wards off evil spirits. Nguyén told the court that he lashed out with the knife in a state of fear and confusion, and was only trying to defend himself.
The defence put forward that Nguyén had no prior criminal record, and had previously suffered brain trauma in a car accident that impaired both his judgment and his self-control. A medical examination of Nguyén conducted especially for the trial confirmed this. The evidence put forward was apparently convincing enough to compel the dissenting judge in this case, Guðmundur L. Jóhannesson, to recommend a sentence of 13 years on the grounds that, “I don’t consider it right to rule out that the unnatural reaction of the accused would be in some way derived from the fact that he sustained a serious brain injury.” The other two judges on the case, however, recommended 16 years.
Taken out of context, 16 years might seem to be completely fitting. But within the context of similar cases the Grapevine researched in the records of the Supreme Court, the sentence diverges from precedent.
Take, for example, the case of Ásgeir Ingi Ásgeirsson. In early 2001, he got into an argument with a woman and pushed her from a 10th floor balcony to her death. The ruling decision said that he knew precisely what he was doing. His sentence: 14 years.
In another instance, there’s Bergþóra Guðmundsdóttir. In 2001, Guðmundsdóttir strangled and then robbed the host of a party she attended. Again, the ruling decision states that Guðmundsdóttir was “in complete control of her actions” that evening. Her sentence: 12 years.
Perhaps one of the most notorious examples, however, would be Magnús Einarsson who, in November 2004, strangled to death his wife Sæunn Pálsdóttir while her two children slept in the same apartment, and then calmly phoned the police. His sentence: nine years, in addition to a little over 13 million ISK in fines and legal fees.
In none of these instances had the victim physically attacked the perpetrator, nor was the perpetrator suffering from serious brain damage – both factors in Nguyén’s case. So why did Nguyén’s sentence go to the furthest extent of the law?
A lawyer the Grapevine spoke to, who commented on the condition of anonymity, said he considered the sentence “very unusual” given the circumstances.
“It is a fairly harsh sentence,” he told us. “I was frankly surprised when I’d heard. I’d been expecting nine, maybe ten years.”
During the 1980s in Iceland, there was a common belief that a “Vietnamese mafia” was at work in the country; a belief that proved groundless but held fast for many years. When asked if he felt race had anything to do with the sentence Nguyén received, the lawyer commented, “That I couldn’t say for certain, but it was the first thing that crossed my mind when I heard the sentence.”
It would be impossible to say for certain whether or not this is a case of a racially motivated sentence. The Grapevine could find no statistics available on the nationalities of perpetrators and the sentences they received. But Nguyén’s case certainly stands out – according to Supreme Court records, at only two other times has a sentence of 16 years been given for manslaughter. One was for Hákon Eydal, who bludgeoned and strangled to death mother of three Sri Rhamawati in July 2004, disposed of the body, and lied to police first about having committed the crime and then where the body was located. In the other case, in 2000, Þórhallur Ölver Gunnlaugsson (who had an extensive record of petty crimes including theft and drug charges), broke into the home of an unnamed victim, stabbed him 11 times in the chest and the back, and then stole the victim’s jewelry. The nature of these crimes, when compared to Nguyén’s, are far more brutal and deserving of the sentences they received. And again, in neither instance did the victim physically attack the perpetrator nor did the perpetrator suffer from serious brain damage.
All this is not to contend that Nguyén should have been cleared of the charges – he committed a violent crime that resulted in the loss of life. Such actions carry a penalty. But when placed within the context of similar or even more severe cases devoid of Nguyén’s circumstances, the sentence does raise troubling questions regarding what criteria judges are using to pass sentence.