TOOELE — A man medically discharged from the Marines for post-traumatic stress disorder following combat in Iraq was sentenced to prison Tuesday for drowning his 22-year-old girlfriend in a bathtub.
Third District Judge Mark Kouris sentenced Walter Smith, 27, to one-to-15 years in prison for second-degree felony manslaughter.
Smith had been charged with first-degree felony murder, but he pleaded guilty to the lesser offense.
Mystery surrounded the March 24, 2006, death of Nicole Speirs, who was the mother of the couple's 10-month-old twins, Emily and Skyler. A medical examiner's report termed it an unexplained death.
Eight months later, Smith checked himself into the Veterans Administration Hospital and confessed to killing Speirs.
The victim's family expressed dismay over the fact that media reports seemed to focus on Smith's combat experience and psychological problems, and essentially ignored the victim, whom they described as a vibrant young woman who adored her children and was a talented artist.
"We have the utmost respect for those in uniform," said Kent Broadbent, the slain woman's uncle. "This is not about Walter's military service. The bottom line is: He murdered Nicole."
Broadbent said Speirs' family would have preferred a stiffer sentence, but has to accept the plea bargain.
As for claims about Smith's mental troubles, Broadbent said that was no excuse for killing anyone. "If he had that many problems, he should have sought help for himself."
Speirs' mother, Pauline Speirs, told the judge the timeline of events bothered her. Smith didn't seem to want anything to do with the children, a boy and a girl who now are 2 1/2, when they were born prematurely and needed hospitalization. But after Smith began getting notices from the state for child support, he popped back up in Nicole Speirs' life. He reunited with her in January 2006, moved in with her March 1 — and she was dead by March 24.
"Our grandchildren will never know their mother," Pauline Speirs said. "Walter, we hope you use your time in prison to heal yourself."
Pauline Speirs and her husband, John, Nicole's father, are raising the twins and plan to legally adopt them.
Smith tearfully apologized for the slaying and said he would not fight the Speirs when it comes to terminating his parental rights. "I didn't plan on doing what I did. I wish I could take it back, but I can't, and all I can say is, 'I'm sorry.'"
The judge said it was clear that Smith had served his country well, and his confession says that Smith does have a conscience.
But Kouris said there was "another whole side to the story" — the tragedy of a murdered young woman, two motherless children and the grieving family and friends who remain behind. "We've obviously lost a very, very important person."