Halifax County Circuit Court Judge Kimberley S. White on Thursday sentenced a 28-year-old Vernon Hill woman convicted of causing the death of a 9-year-old boy while driving intoxicated to 33 years in prison.
Melissa Dawn Rhodes was sentenced to 33 years active prison time Thursday for felony homicide, aggravated involuntary manslaughter, felony child endangerment with serious injury, DUI (second offense within five years), driving suspended (DUI related) and driving suspended (third or subsequent).
She received a total sentence of 70 years on the felonies and 36 additional months for the misdemeanors.
The court suspended 40 years of the felony sentence, leaving a balance of 30 years plus 36 months for Rhodes to serve, conditioned upon 50 years of good behavior and 10 years of supervised probation upon her release from incarceration.
The charges stemmed from an August car crash that killed Julian Adam Suttle, the 9-year-old child of Rhodes’ fiancé at the time, Chad Suttle.
The son of Jennifer Suttle of Roxboro, North Carolina, was visiting his father at the time of the crash.
The commonwealth presented victim impact statements from the child’s mother, father, sister, aunt and uncle, and the child’s mother testified at the proceeding.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Quackenbush Martin argued that no amount of time would heal the devastating loss of the child and that the sentencing guidelines, which called for just over 20 years at the midpoint, was insufficient.
Before pronouncing the sentence, Judge White pointed out the criminal justice system is not about revenge but that it was the court’s duty to protect the public.
Of particular concern to the judge was Rhodes’ testimony that she drove intoxicated daily before the date of the crash. The judge stated every day she drove she had been endangering any children in the car and every driver on the road.
On Aug. 20, Rhodes, who had been residing with the child’s father, crashed a 2006 Dodge Caravan carrying the 9-year-old.
The commonwealth presented evidence that Rhodes had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.24-0.26 at the time of the crash.
The child was not wearing a seatbelt when he received fatal head injuries after Rhodes ran off Mountain Road headed west, hit a ditch and slid across Thompson Store Road into a utility pole with enough force to break the pole in half.
The crash was discovered quickly by two off-duty ABC agents and Corporal S. Britton of the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office, who was also off-duty at the time.
“These officers, later joined by Trooper D. L. of the Virginia State Police, began life-saving measures for the injured young boy. The police officers, multiple first responders, and a team of doctors at Duke University Children’s Hospital did everything they could to save his life,” the commonwealth’s attorney said.
The child was pronounced dead on Aug. 24, 2016.
“Part of the strength of the commonwealth’s case at sentencing was the family’s willingness to prepare thoughtful and detailed victim impact statements for the court. By the time the judge read everything, she felt like she knew this smart, funny, larger-than-life boy,” said Martin.
“The family’s level of engagement in this process has been admirable, despite the pain of the circumstances. They stuck with us through to the end, and it made all the difference.”
“Today, I am especially grateful to Sharron Garrett, our county victim-witness coordinator, for keeping up with the family throughout this process and for making arrangements for the preparation and filing of the victim impact statements. Her support of the family has been commendable.
“I am also thankful to the Virginia State Police, the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the Oak Level Fire Department, Turbeville Fire and Rescue, Halifax County Rescue Squad, Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital Emergency Room and Duke University for their care of the child and for their participation in this case,” Martin added.
Rhodes’ guilty plea came on the second day of a three-day jury trial, after the full presentation of the commonwealth’s case to the jury and without any agreement or concessions from the commonwealth.