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SALT LAKE CITY — Noting that even a 5-year-old knew what was going on in the house, a judge on Friday sentenced Sherrie Beckering to the maximum term of five years to life in prison for the death of a disabled woman living in her home.
Sherrie Beckering, 51, was found guilty in September of aggravated abuse of a disabled adult, a first-degree felony, in the 2011 death of Christina "Nina" Harms.
Harms, 22, lived in Beckering's home at 4978 S. 5415 West. Prosecutors say Harms, who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and had the mental capacity of an 8- to 12-year-old, was constantly kept in a small closet where she was bound crucifixion-style and forced to eat and go to the bathroom while being bound to a metal bar.
Beckering's daughter, Cassandra Shepard, 27, of South Dakota, was Harms' legal guardian. Beckering and her husband, Dale Beckering, were both arrested and charged. All three lived together in their Kearns house with Harms.
Before sentencing, defense attorney David Berceau pleaded with 3rd District Judge Katie Bernards-Goodman not to send his client to prison. She has no prior criminal history, spent much of her life taking care of Harms, and wasn't aware of the abuse that was happening in her house because she worked so late every night to support the family, Berceau argued.
"She believes she should have known," he told the judge. "She should have put two and two together. She loved Nina, there's no doubt about it.
"This has been a tragedy all around. My client has lost everything. ... I'm asking this court not to imprison my client. I think she deserves an opportunity to get back on her feet."
Beckering made her own tearful plea to the court before being sentenced.
"Nothing I say will bring Christina back," she said. "I'll never forgive myself for this, ever."
But prosecutor Chad Platt reminded the court of the trial testimony from witnesses, including grandchildren who were also living in the house at the time. When a 5-year-old granddaughter was asked when Harms got to come out of the closet, she said never.
"Nina never got to come out of that closet. She never made it out alive," Platt said.
Goodman agreed, saying that the abuse Harms suffered didn't just happen in one day, and the red flags were abundant.
Outside the courtroom, Berceau said it was a "sad day for everyone." The presumption of "you should have known" was a strong bias to overcome.
"I think that's the end result of why my client got convicted because there's that type of bias that people have that, 'You should know,'" he said. "My client is reacting horribly, as you can expect. She's never had an ounce of trouble in her life. She intends to appeal. I believe the jury got it wrong."
Nina never got to come out of that closet. She never made it out alive.
–Chad Platt, prosecutor
Berceau said the testimony of the children during the trial was "all over the place," and he'd be surprised if anybody who read their transcripts would find his client guilty based on their testimonies.
Beckering cried with her head hung low, often times shaking her head, as she listened to Platt and and the judge talk in court. Three unidentified people were in the audience of the courtroom, apparently to support Beckering. The courtroom, however, was largely empty. None of Harms' friends or relatives were present, though several submitted letters to the court.
"I think the decision was the correct decision," Platt said after the hearing. "We're satisfied to see justice done to this point."
"She had to know — anybody would have known," Platt said of Beckering's claim that she was unaware of the abuse going on in her home.
Dale Beckering, Sherrie's former husband, was sentenced in February to one to 15 years in prison after he was convicted of a reduced charge of aggravated abuse of a vulnerable adult, a second-degree felony. He, too, claimed he had no idea of the abuse taking place.
Shepard is charged with murder, a first-degree felony, aggravated abuse of a disabled adult, a first-degree felony, and obstructing justice, a second-degree felony. Her seven-day trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 25.