By Kathy Jefcoats
An Ellenwood mother who claims she shot a man last year because he molested her sons pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter Monday morning and was sentenced to 20 years, 15 to serve in prison.
It is possible that shooting victim Thomas Henry Roll, 36, never molested Cathy Michelle Whitfield's sons, 10 and 7, but a defense witness testified that Whitfield's belief was as strong as the truth as a motive.
"Whether it was true or not, she believed someone abused her kids," said Dr. Richard Laurence Elliott, an ethics, law and psychology professor at Mercer University.
Elliott spent more than an hour with her two months ago and further testified that he still wonders if there could be another motive for the shooting.
"I just found out today that she has a serious history of drug abuse," he said. "She tried to get treatment several weeks before the shooting but was told by her husband that he didn't want her in treatment because they'd put her on drugs and he wanted her off drugs."
At the time of her arrest, Whitfield was carrying methamphetamine.
While cross-examining defense witness Dr. Jack Farrar, a Jonesboro clinical and forensic psychologist, Flint Assistant District Attorney Blair Mahaffey said the boys told police they were not molested.
"They said if anyone had touched them, they'd hit him and run away," said Mahaffey.
Farrar said he was not allowed to interview the boys so he didn't know their version of events.
Outside the courtroom, Roll's father, Duane Roll, said Whitfield overreacted to an innocent incident.
"She saw something on the computer and jumped to conclusions," he said.
Farrar and Elliott both testified that Whitfield told them she was sexually molested as a child by a relative. Her family knew about the abuse but did not report it, they said.
"She has nightmares of being a victim of sexual abuse," said Farrar. "That would raise her level of trauma. Unless she gets some pretty intense treatment, her future is not bright."
But Flint District Attorney Tommy Floyd got Elliott to testify under cross-examination that Whitfield knew right from wrong at the time of the shooting and has no sign of a mental illness that caused her to pull the trigger.
Mahaffey said on the day of the shooting, Whitfield called Roll to meet her at Sports Zone in Ellenwood. She drove there in a borrowed Jeep and picked up Roll and his brother as they walked to meet her. The three went to Kroger to buy chicken livers to fish with, and alcoholic drinks.
Whitfield then dropped off the brother near his house and he walked the rest of the way home. Mahaffey said at some point, Whitfield asked Roll to climb in the backseat to find some sunglasses she'd dropped. While he was in the backseat, Mahaffey said, Whitfield reached over and shot Roll in the head with a two-shot .38 caliber Derringer. She then either forced him out of the car or he was ejected by the force of the shot, said Mahaffey.
Roll was left on the side of the road 200 yards from the Coffee Lane house he shared with his parents, Duane and Virginia Roll, in Ellenwood. They found him hours later.
Mahaffey said Whitfield then drove the borrowed Jeep to a car wash and cleaned it up. She was immediately identified as a suspect when Roll's parents told police he was last seen with her, and arrested within days.
Whitfield's family attended the brief hearing Monday. Her mother, Joyce Ledford, told Craig that relatives will continue to support Whitfield.
"She made a big mistake out of concern for her children's safety," she said. "We will do anything to make life go forward for her."
Farrar and Elliott both advocated a short prison stay followed by years on probation so Whitfield could seek treatment. That position was echoed by her defense attorney, George Weldon, who asked for leniency.
But Henry Superior Court Chief Judge Hal Craig said while mitigating circumstances existed, consideration had already been given Whitfield in allowing her to plead guilty to the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder.
"Loss of life is irreversible," said Craig. "I believe the initial recommendation by the state is the appropriate sentence."
Voluntary manslaughter carries a sentence of one to 20 years in prison.