DILLON — A judge sentenced 21-year-old Sandy Rose Moore to 40 years in the Montana Women’s Prison on Tuesday for strangling an older boyfriend to death in a rental home they shared here.
District Judge Luke Berger agreed with prosecutors that Moore deserved the maximum sentence for mitigated deliberate homicide in the January 2020 death of 49-year-old Larry Coon. Berger said he had no doubt Moore had gone through tough times in life and needed extensive mental-health treatment.
But, he said, "You can't snap and kill someone. I know that sounds basic but I want to explain this to you basically."
Moore pleaded guilty to the charge in June, saying she got into a heated argument with Coon and was in “extreme emotional duress” when he then threatened to call child protective services on a family member. She said she grabbed a rope, put it around his neck and strangled him.
Defense attorney Walter Hennessey told Berger Tuesday that Moore was “low functioning,” subject to manipulation and suffered trauma at a young age. A 25-year sentence would provide adequate punishment while allowing her to receive treatment and someday rejoin society, he said.
He said the only person Moore truly cherished and tried to protect was her sister, and that was who Coon threatened to call protective services about.
Moore told Berger on Tuesday she was sorry for killing Coon and thought about it every night.
“If given a chance, I would really like to make amends and correct what I did wrong, even though I know I have to live with the guilt of what I’ve done,” Moore said. “There’s no way I can get rid of that guilt. I’ll always have to live with it.”
But Thorin Geist, who joined Beaverhead County Attorney Jed Fitch in prosecuting the case, balked at suggestions Moore only acted “in the heat of the moment.”
“It took more than a moment for the defendant to wrap a cord around Mr. Coon’s neck,” Geist said. “It took more than a moment to pull it tight and it took more than a moment to hold it there until he stopped struggling.
“This is a case where the victim would have known what was happening,” he said. “He didn’t die in a moment. He would have realized that his attempts to save himself were for naught.”
Prosecutors initially charged Moore with deliberate homicide, which is punishable by death, life in prison or up to 100 years. But in a plea deal, she pleaded guilty to mitigated homicide, meaning it was committed “under the influence of extreme mental or emotional stress for which there is a reasonable explanation or excuse.”
Under Montana law, the mitigating circumstances are not an element of the reduced crime that the state or defense is required to prove but either side can present evidence of mitigation.
Two others — Christina VanDuinen and Kerry Samuel Johnson — were accused of trying to conceal Coon’s death. VanDuinen and Johnson were charged with obstruction of justice and VanDuinen was also charged with tampering with evidence.
VanDuinen, 25, pleaded guilty to the tampering charge Tuesday and faces up to 10 years in prison when sentenced. She is already serving time for a separate and previous drug possession conviction and could be sentenced to more time for the tampering conviction.
Johnson, 56, pleaded not guilty to the obstruction charge and his case is still pending.
According to prosecutors, Johnson indicated on Jan. 11, 2020, he might know the location of a dead body. He told police he had been at Coon’s home to fix the washer and dryer and found Coon’s wallet but he wasn’t there. He said Moore was acting “strange and nervous.”
Police went to the home and after Moore first refused them admittance, she let officers inside, saying she and Coon had argued and he was out for a walk to calm himself.
Police found Coon’s body between the washer and dryer, with a plastic bag over his head, in a position that indicated the body had been moved. Moore was arrested immediately.
At Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, licensed clinical counselor Jennifer Miller said she had treated Moore in 2019 for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She said Moore had been kidnapped once by a man in her youth and also suffered from child abuse.
Moore was “somewhat slow” and was prone to making rash decisions, but given the right inpatient psychotherapy, was treatable, Miller said.
But three of Coon’s sisters provided statements saying Moore had taken their brother’s life and deserved the maximum sentence. Letters from two of them were read in court and the other, Lori Ann Ford, appeared via Zoom from the Montana Women’s Prison, where she’s serving time for repeated DUIs.
“I will never be able to tell my brother Larry goodbye,” she said. “Who gave you the right to take that opportunity away from me?”
Berger called the case “tragic” and noted the mental issues Moore has faced. But he said those were among mitigating considerations behind the plea deal that lessened the charge and possible prison time.
He also told Moore she would be eligible for parole after serving a quarter of her sentence, plus she was getting 641 days of credit for jail time already served. The Parole Board was better suited to decide then if she was capable of going free, he said.
But he said she deserved the maximum sentence given the nature of the crime and the need to protect society.
“I can look at you today and I can tell that you know that you messed up,” the judge said. “And you said that this is going to haunt you for the rest of your life. Good. I hope it does. I want you to think about it the rest of your life because that is what you brought on yourself.”
Fitch, the county attorney, said it was the state’s decision to modify the charge and he was pleased the judge imposed the maximum sentence allowed for such a conviction.