SALT LAKE CITY — Her family knew Rose Marie Harris had a difficult relationship, but they did not expect it to end in her death.
“She was intelligent and funny and she was also tender and vulnerable,” her sister Suzanne Palmer told a judge Tuesday, but others sometimes took advantage of her weaknesses.
Third District Judge Randall Skanchy on Tuesday ordered Harris’ partner Sue Mary Hickman to at least one and up to 15 years in prison, about 2 1/2 years after police found Harris, 54, dead of a gunshot wound on their couch.
“The ability to walk away from a volatile situation existed, and it didn’t happen here,” Skanchy told Hickman, 55. He recommended she “serve every day of that sentence,” without credit for more than two years she has spent in jail.
Harris was found dead in the home the couple shared at 573 N. Wall St. in the Capitol Hill neighborhood on Dec. 18, 2016. In a recording of her call to police previously played in court, she is heard saying, “I did it. She made me snap. I couldn’t take it anymore, her drinking.”
Hickman originally faced a charge of murder, a first-degree felony. But a jury in March found her guilty of the lesser offense of manslaughter, a second-degree felony, concluding she was under extreme emotional distress at the time, her attorney Ed Brass said.
Palmer, one of Harris’ sisters, said she believes Hickman managed to secure the less severe conviction by misleading jurors earlier this year. She recalled that Hickman knew Harris was fighting addiction but had told her to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana to cope with her anxiety.
Still, she turned to a teary Hickman at one point Tuesday and told her, “I forgive you.”
Hickman’s attorneys argued she doesn’t recall shooting Harris and had resolved to pack up her guns and leave with the couple’s two pit pulls after they began fighting over dishes on Dec. 17, 2016. Prosecutors contended Hickman waited a half hour to call police after shooting her partner and had a cigarette with her family members in the interim.
“That’s just very hard to accept, that this was an accident,” said Deputy Salt Lake District Attorney Joshua Graves.
Graves said the case would likely have reached a different outcome under a new Utah law that took effect Tuesday, partly because it stipulates that if a victim provoked their killer with only words, that’s not a basis for juries to find someone guilty of a lesser offense than murder.
A shackled Hickman did not speak in court, except to say a tearful “no, sir” when the judge asked if she would make a statement. She wore gray hair and a dark blue jail uniform, whispering “I love you” to her family as she was led to a holding cell.
Teri Bailey, Hickman’s friend and former partner of 23 years, said outside the courtroom that she believes Hickman and Harris both were struggling over one of Hickman’s guns when it fired, but her friend likely accepted fault because it’s her nature to blame herself.
She recalled Harris, not Hickman, as an abuser, at one point striking Hickman in the ear where she’d just had surgery. Still, after Harris’ death, Hickman was concerned for her late partner’s family and demanded half the money from the sale of her home to go to them, Bailey said.
Now, Hickman calls her most every night from jail and asks the same question.
“She wants to know who pulled the trigger, because she doesn’t know who pulled the trigger,” Bailey said.
Hickman has struggled to access to mental health services in jail and plans to seek out treatment in prison, her friend added.
“Everything she lived for is dead, by what she believes is her own hands,” Bailey said. “How do you go on?”