Shanita Rutherford called Westley Barber a “waterweight” before he threw her off a porch, causing a spinal cord injury that first paralyzed her and eventually led to her death.
That’s what prosecutor Al Whitaker told jurors Tuesday, the first day of Barber’s trial on charges of felony murder, aggravated battery, involuntary manslaughter and simple battery.
The prosecution maintains that Barber intentionally injured Rutherford, whether or not he meant for the injury to be fatal. The defense argues that what happened was nothing more than an accident, and Barber never meant to hurt Rutherford.
It happened at a party early on the morning of April 10, 2015, at 3512 Fourth Ave. in Columbus, where people were drinking, smoking marijuana and playing card games, Whitaker said.
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He said that after Rutherford called Barber a “waterweight,” the two got into a struggle on the front porch of the one-story home, where Barber picked Rutherford up and threw her over a porch banister onto concrete, breaking her neck.
Detective Ken Hudson testified that Barber later told police he was angry at being called a “waterweight,” but when he picked Rutherford up, he intended only to sit back upon the porch railing with her in front of him. Then they accidentally fell over, dropping about 5 feet with Barber landing first and Rutherford falling atop him, Hudson said.
Barber then wriggled out from under her, circled the rear of the house and came back around to the front to check on Rutherford’s condition, but a friend persuaded him to leave, Hudson said Barber told detectives.
Whitaker emphasized that Barber left without offering to help Rutherford, whom others carried back into the house upon learning she could not move.
“You will hear that he extended not a single hand to assist her,” Whitaker said, adding witnesses recalled Barber “huffing and puffing” as he stood over Rutherford.
Paramedic Garrett Gordy was among the first responders. He testified he was guided to a room in the house where Rutherford lay still. “She told me she couldn’t move. She got thrown off the porch,” Gordy said.
He said she gave him two versions of what happened, at first saying, “They were playing around, and she was pushed off the porch.”
She couldn’t move her fingers and toes, so he put her in a neck collar, placed her on a backboard, and called for firefighters to help carry her to his ambulance.
“That’s when she told me she was body-slammed off the porch,” he said.
Police first were called at 3:20 a.m. to the emergency room where Rutherford was being treated, and then they went to the house on Fourth Avenue. Barber wasn’t there, but they found him later at his girlfriend’s house.
Barber’s then-girlfriend, Nastassia Gary, testified she also had been at the party, but left early. When Barber came home that night, he was visibly upset, pacing and mumbling to himself, but he would not tell her why, she said.
“I couldn’t understand what he was saying,” she said. “I was walking behind him.”
When Whitaker asked whether Barber was “mad,” she replied: “He was upset. It’s the same thing, ain’t it?”
At the hospital, Rutherford’s mother Melissa Lowe rushed to check on her injured daughter, whom she was told had a “broken neck and severed spine.”
She found Rutherford, 25, lying still and straight, her eyes closed.
“Mommy, don’t cry,” Rutherford told her. “I’m so glad to see you.”
Lowe started crying. “That’s when she told me again, ‘Mommy, don’t cry,’” the mother testified.
She said Rutherford had not meant to cause any trouble: “She said she was just being friendly to the people that were coming to the party.” Rutherford told her she had been body-slammed off the porch onto concrete, Lowe testified: “She couldn’t move her neck. She couldn’t even move her arm…. She couldn’t move anything.”
Lowe tried to reassure her: “I told her she was going to be all right.”
Rutherford was not going to be all right.
After treatment at Columbus’ Midtown Medical Center – now Piedmont Columbus Regional – she was transferred to the Shepherd Spinal Center, and then to Douglas Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Facility, authorities said.
She needed constant personal care when she returned home Nov. 13, 2015. Five days later, she was taken to Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Ga., because of seizures and bleeding, and eventually needed life support because of a brain hemorrhage.
She died from that hemorrhage on Nov. 28, 2015.
Initially charged only with aggravated battery for allegedly causing Rutherford to lose the use of her legs, Barber was indicted Oct. 18, 2016, for felony murder, aggravated battery, involuntary manslaughter and simple battery.
The felony murder count alleges Barber fatally injured Rutherford while committing the felony of aggravated battery, an intentional act. The involuntary manslaughter charge alleges he unintentionally caused her death while committing the misdemeanor of simple battery.
“There will be a lot of talk about intent,” Whitaker told jurors in his opening statement. He said the question they must answer is, “Did he intend to do the act?”
That means the act of throwing Rutherford off the porch, not of causing her death, Whitaker said.
Defense attorney Nancy Miller maintained Barber, 30, had no intention of forcing Rutherford over the porch banister: It was nothing more than a “terrible accident,” she said.