ROCKLAND, Maine — Was Steven Pomeroy regretful or remorseful after he fatally stabbed 22-year-old Jessica Marie Nichols multiple times last July?
The answer made a difference Thursday at Knox County Superior Court during the 24-year-old Hope man’s sentencing for the crime. Pomeroy had pleaded guilty in June to one count of “intentional or knowing or depraved indifference murder,” waiving his right to a jury trial.
Justice Donald Marden thought Pomeroy was remorseful when he confessed to the crime and pleaded guilty, and so sentenced him to a maximum of 35 years in prison instead of the 50 years that the state had asked for — or the life imprisonment that many of Nichols’ friends had sought. Remorse is more heartfelt and shows more empathy than regret, which could just mean that a person is sorry he was caught, Marden said.
“There’s nothing I can do to ever give back what I’ve taken. I’m truly sorry for that,” a shackled, somber Pomeroy said while turning to face Nichols’ family and friends. “I don’t know what words to say right now. ‘Sorry’ just doesn’t cut it.”
Had Pomeroy been perceived to be merely regretful, he might have served as many as 45 years because of the brutality of the murder, Marden said. Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea had asked for a 50-year sentence. Murder in Maine carries a penalty of 25 years to life, the justice said.
“He stood up here today and faced the family, not asking them for forgiveness,” Marden said. “He apparently understands there are some things much too difficult to forgive.”
Other factors influencing the sentence included the lack of violence in Pomeroy’s criminal record, the lack of clear evidence that Pomeroy had detained Nichols in his apartment, subjected her to sexual assault, torture or “extreme cruelty,” and the fact that he confessed to the crime the next day after praying on it, Marden said.
“It’s clear that he exercised a depraved indifference to the value of her life,” Marden said. “But at some point he reached the conclusion he had to do, quote, whatever God wanted him to do, unquote.”
The sentence didn’t sit well with Nichols’ family and friends, more than 50 of whom packed into the small courtroom to bear witness to the proceedings.
“The family is not satisfied. It was a heinous, heinous crime,” said Becky Winfield of Topsham, Nichols’ aunt.
The 22-year-old Waldoboro woman, who was remembered for her bright smile and outgoing nature, had been “drinking and fooling around” at Pomeroy’s upstairs apartment in Hope the night of July 1, 2008, according to what her killer told police after the crime. Pomeroy had drunk 18 beers over the day and night, Zainea told the court during the plea hearing in June, despite a history of alcoholism. When Nichols made a comment about Pomeroy’s former fiancee, he flew into what Justice Marden called “a savage attack.”
Pomeroy grabbed a cast-iron frying pan and struck her with it until it broke into four separate pieces, Zainea said. He then slashed at her with a small knife, then a larger one after the first one broke, leaving 22 stab wounds and 17 slashes to her back, abdomen, arms and chest. After mopping up the blood in his apartment, Zainea said, Pomeroy dragged Nichols’ naked body downstairs by the ankles and put her in the trunk of his car.
“There is evidence that suggests that Jessica Nichols was alive as the defendant dragged her,” Zainea said in her opening remarks at the sentencing.
The state medical examiner ruled that Nichols’ time of death was 8:25 a.m. July 2, the day her body was found.
Many in the courthouse cried as they listened to Zainea’s recounting of Nichols’ murder.
“She struggled for her life,” the assistant attorney general said. “She wanted to live. She didn’t want to die.”
The next morning, Pomeroy drove to a family friend’s home and said that he had killed somebody. Investigating police found Nichols’ bloody, naked body in the fetal position in the trunk of his car, and Pomeroy was arrested at the scene. He has been held without bail at Knox County Jail since his arrest.
Hearing that Nichols fought for her life came as no surprise to her loved ones, who said they saw her do the same thing when she was hit by an SUV when she was 16 years old.
“My sisters and I were told to say goodbye,” family friend Allaura Elliott told the court through tears. “Instead we told her to not give up. She’d say, ‘There’s no reason for me to be alive. God saved me.’ It was a miracle. She always believed that no matter how bad life got, it was worth living.”
Carla Nichols said that losing her daughter Jessica “is like a cancer that eats away at you. … It is like a hole in my heart. Apart from her memory, all I have got are her ashes.”
June Brown of South Hope, who spoke on behalf of Pomeroy, tearfully addressed Nichols’ friends and family.
“I’m not here to defend Steve or excuse him,” she said. “I’m here to say that I love him and that an evil, evil deed he committed does not make him what he is. He is sick with regret, as we all are.”
Pomeroy’s attorney, Philip Cohen of Waldoboro, challenged some of Zainea’s interpretation of the crime scene evidence as he described an unpremeditated crime “committed out of a blind rage.”
“He turned himself in,” Cohen said. “He’s never tried to make excuses. He’s accepted responsibility from the start.”
Cohen, who had a forensic psychologist testify to Pomeroy’s history of depression, substance abuse and attachment issues brought on by a “chaotic” childhood, sought a 30-year sentence for his client.
After the sentencing was over, Pomeroy’s supporters looked relieved, but didn’t want to speak to the press.
But Lorry Utting of Appleton, who said she was like a “second mom” to Nichols, said 35 years was not enough.
“I know Jess is up there today, angry,” Utting said. “Jess stood up for what was right, and what was fair.”
Elliott, who showed the snowflake tattoo she had in Nichols’ honor, agreed.
“I don’t think she got the justice she deserved for the person she was,” Elliott said. “We have a life sentence for not having her for the rest of our lives.”
Carla Nichols said that she doubted Pomeroy expressed remorse.
“I feel he did it for himself to get a lesser sentence, and it helped,” she said. “He’s not going to miss Jessica.”