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Rhodes gets 33 years for child’s death

SoVaNow.com / June 12, 2017
Melissa Dawn Rhodes of Vernon Hill was sentenced to 33 years active prison time Thursday for felony homicide, aggravated involuntary manslaughter, DUI and other offenses in connection with the August 2016 death of Julian “J.S.” Suttle of Roxboro, N.C.

Rhodes was the driver of a Dodge Caravan carrying nine-year-old J.S. when the vehicle veered off Hwy. 360 (Mountain Road) near Vernon Hill on Aug. 20, 2016. At trial, 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. Rhodes had run off of 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.

In addition to felony homicide and aggravated involuntary manslaughter charges, Rhodes was convicted in March of 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. Rhodes is 28 years old.

J. S. was the son of Jennifer Suttle of Roxboro and Chad Suttle of Vernon Hill. At the time of the crash, J. S. was visiting his father in Vernon Hill. He and the defendant were living together in a romantic relationship.

At Rhodes’ sentencing hearing, the prosecution presented victim impact statements from the child’s mother, father, sister, aunt and uncle. The child’s mother, Jennifer Suttle, 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.

Judge Kimberley S. White presided over the hearing. Before pronouncing the sentence, she pointed out that 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. She stated that every day she drove she had been endangering any children in the car and every driver on the road.

The August crash was discovered quickly by two off-duty ABC agents, and Cpl. 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,” noted Martin. 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.”

Rhodes’ guilty plea came on the second day of a three-day jury trial in late March, after the full presentation of the Commonwealth’s case to the jury, and without any agreement or concessions from the Commonwealth.

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