In a surprise development Thursday morning in Halifax County Circuit Court, Melissa Dawn Rhodes, the 28-year-old woman accused of causing the death of a 9-year-old boy while driving intoxicated, pleaded guilty to felony child abuse, aggravated involuntary manslaughter, and she entered an Alford plea of guilty to felony murder.
Under terms of an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but realizes prosecution evidence is sufficient for a guilty finding.
After professing her innocence on Wednesday, Rhodes reversed course Thursday morning with a guilty plea as the prosecution presented its final evidence.
Rhodes’ decision to change her pleas followed a motion by her defense attorney, James Midkiff, to strike the third charge of felony murder based on a precedent set by an appeals court wherein a woman left two minors alone in a vehicle with the result that an older, more aggressive child killed his younger companion.
Midkiff argued that while Rhodes may be guilty of felony child abuse and aggravated involuntary manslaughter by choosing to drive drunk and choosing to transport a minor in a vehicle she chose to drive while impaired, the element of malice generally tied to a charge of felony murder was not present.
“This was a horrible accident,” said Midkiff, “but there was no intention on my client’s part to do harm to Julian Suttle. A bank robber speeding away from the scene of his crime and running over a pedestrian in order to make his escape commits that act intentionally and with malice as part of his original felony, but that’s not what happened here.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Q. Martin disagreed with Midkiff, arguing that from the moment Rhodes chose to enter her vehicle with Suttle as a passenger, the ongoing “continuous flow” of violations makes it impossible to view the death of Suttle as a separate and discrete violation; instead, Rhodes’ responsibility for the boy’s death followed seamlessly from the original crime of felony child abuse.
Judge Kimberley White told Midkiff she believed his motion was perhaps better suited to consideration by an appeals court, but concluded the prosecution had provided sufficient evidence to the circuit court to deny Midkiff’s motion and to move forward with the third and most serious charge of felony murder.
At that point, Rhodes entered her Alford plea.
The former Vernon Hill resident had pleaded not guilty a day earlier at the beginning of what was scheduled to be a three-day jury trial on the charges related to the crash.
Rhodes was indicted in December for homicide, reckless involuntary DUI manslaughter and four other charges in connection with an Aug. 20 traffic crash that claimed the life of Julian Adam Suttle, the 9-year-old child of her fiancé at the time, Chad Suttle.
The Aug. 20 single-vehicle crash involving Rhodes and Suttle, her juvenile passenger, became a fatal crash when Suttle died from his injuries on Aug. 24 at Duke Medical Center, according to Virginia State Police.
Virginia State Police reported Rhodes was driving a 2006 Dodge Caravan traveling west on Highway 360 when it ran off to the side of the road and struck a stop sign.
The vehicle then struck a utility pole, splitting the pole in half, with Rhodes transported to Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital for treatment of minor injuries.
Suttle, who like Rhodes was not wearing a seatbelt, was transported to Duke Medical Center where he later succumbed to his injuries.
Jury selection got underway in the trial Wednesday morning in Halifax County Circuit Court with Judge White explaining felony murder is a charge that can be brought when a defendant unintentionally kills someone else while engaged in a felony.
After seating the nine-man, three-woman jury, the first day of the trial was dominated by testimony of law enforcement officers and emergency services personnel who were among the first persons to arrive at the scene and a state forensics toxicologist.
The officers testified Rhodes smelled of alcohol as they came to face-to-face with her at the accident scene.
The toxicologist testified about results of a blood sample taken at the hospital emergency room where Rhodes was brought following the crash. Testimony revealed Rhodes’ blood alcohol level at the wreck was three times the legal limit of .08.
According to testimony, when rescue workers pulled Suttle from the mini-van wreckage, the 9-year-old was suffering from a large laceration to his head and other injuries that resulted in rescue personnel calling in Lifeflight to rush him to Duke University Hospital for treatment where he died Aug. 24.
Photos of the crash scene showed the bloody backseat where rescue workers found the child lying in the floorboard with a fractured skull.
Wednesday afternoon, the child’s mother, Jennifer Hicks Suttle, briefly testified the 9-year-old was visiting his father for the weekend at his Vernon Hill home when the wreck occurred.
The rising fourth grader at South Elementary School in Person County, North Carolina, had lived with his mother prior to the crash.
In court on Thursday, Rhodes, dressed in grey slacks and a black jacket, sat quietly at her attorney’s side, while witnesses testified further about medical findings.
Doctors attending Julian Suttle at Duke University Medical Center testified the boy had entered the emergency room with severe head and brain injuries on Aug. 20, and over the course of the next few days, Suttle’s condition deteriorated until his team of pediatric specialists pronounced him brain-dead.
After the motion to strike Midkiff’s motion was dismissed, and Rhodes entered an Alford plea to the most serious charge of felony murder, White called the jury back into the room.
The judge explained what had happened to the nine men and three women who comprised the jury before dismissing them.
She then accepted Rhodes’ guilty pleas and Alford plea and said she would pronounce sentence at a later date.
Rhodes is being held at the Halifax Adult Detention Center.