A Spokane woman who killed her badly brain-damaged daughter will not spend any time in prison because a Superior Court judge said he had to put himself “in her shoes.”
Judge James Murphy ordered Deborah Rockstrom to complete 240 hours of community service for the mercy killing of 13-year-old Erin.
“What would I do if Erin was my daughter?” Murphy asked. “I can’t say many parents … would put up with what Deborah Rockstrom put up with for the amount of time she did.”
Rockstrom, 37, pleaded guilty Tuesday to a reduced charge of first-degree manslaughter for the Feb. 21 killing. The standard sentencing range is 31 to 41 months.
Prosecutor Jim Sweetser didn’t recommend a sentence for Rockstrom, but simply asked the judge to consider the law.
“Who is it in the community that has the right to play God?” Sweetser said. “Who is it that has the right to determine whether another person - a person who is vulnerable and weak - should die?”
Erin was accidentally shot in the face Sept. 5, 1993, while partying at the home of a friend whose parents were out of town. One boy was playing with a .22-caliber handgun when it went off.
The bullet pierced Erin’s right cheek, went through her brain and lodged in its stem. She remained in a coma for two months before returning to her West Euclid home, where Rockstrom dedicated herself to Erin’s care for more than a year.
Relatives were hopeful at first that Erin would recover, said defense attorney Dick Cease.
While she couldn’t speak or move any part of her body except for her right arm, Erin learned some sign language and worked hard in her physical therapy sessions.
“But the family had false hope from the beginning,” Cease said. “It was going to take a miracle and it became a reality that no miracle was going to happen.”
Erin’s bladder had to be emptied four times a day and saliva had to be suctioned from her mouth hourly, because she could no longer swallow on her own. She was fed by a tube.
The care she required frustrated Erin, who soon lost interest in therapy and stopped communicating, relatives said. She lashed out at visitors with her one good arm and scratched herself until she drew blood. Sometimes she tried to shove her hand down her throat, they said.
When her aunt, Renee Torrence, came to see her one day, Erin started crying.
“I asked her what I could do to make her feel better and she spelled out the word ‘die,”’ Torrence said.
Watching her daughter deteriorate sent Deborah Rockstrom into a severe depression, her doctors said. She blamed herself for Erin’s injury and restricted her other daughter’s activities, afraid something would happen to her, too.
“You can tell yourself that it wasn’t your fault, but I should have done something more,” Rockstrom said Tuesday in court. “I should have checked in with her that night. I should have asked to talk to the parents. I feel so guilty about that.”
After the shooting, Rockstrom said she devoted all of her time to helping Erin get better, eventually losing her job as a caregiver at Lakeland Village, a treatment center for the mentally handicapped.
She started feeling even more guilty about telling Erin she could get better - something Rockstrom knew wasn’t likely.
“I felt like I had to give her that hope, that I had to keep telling her if she tried hard enough she could walk again,” Rockstrom said. “But it wasn’t right and I felt bad because I thought she knew it.”
Rockstrom became convinced that her daughter wanted to die and spoke about fulfilling that wish shortly before Christmas 1994.
But her husband, Steve Rockstrom, refused to go along with the idea. He told her not to raise the subject again, according to court documents.
He did not attend Tuesday’s sentencing hearing.
Rockstrom said she thought she was helping Erin when she gave her a handful of sleeping pills and held a plastic bag over her head until she stopped breathing.
Afterwards, she went straight to the Spokane County Jail to tell police what she’d done.
It was the second mercy killing case in the Inland Northwest in the past two years to result in a lenient sentence.
In fall 1994, a North Idaho man shot his comatose brother in the head in Kootenai Medical Center’s intensive care unit.
Curt Doty, then 26, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to three years in prison last summer. Judge Gary Haman, however, made Doty eligible for parole after 30 days behind bars.
“These are unique, emotional, difficult cases,” said Cease, who also represented the defendant in Spokane’s last mercy killing case eight years ago. “There are no easy ones.”
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