Melissa Lowe once had high hopes for her youngest daughter.
“She was a giving person,” Lowe said Thursday of daughter Shanita Rutherford, 25, who died after being thrown from a porch in 2015. “She was so full of life, and I was just waiting to see what the future was going to hold for her, until this happened.”
Lowe was speaking outside a Columbus courtroom where Westley Barber had just been sentenced to serve 14 years for voluntary manslaughter, a charge to which he pleaded guilty Wednesday for his role in Rutherford’s death.
Barber decided to plea on the second day of his trial for murder, aggravated battery, involuntary manslaughter and simple battery. After accepting his plea Wednesday afternoon, Superior Court Judge Gil McBride set the sentencing for Thursday morning.
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Prosecutors Al Whitaker and Chris Williams alleged Barber became infuriated at a party on April 10, 2015 at 3512 Fourth Ave., where Rutherford, 25, was on the front porch greeting guests when she called Barber a “waterweight.” Barber then picked Rutherford up and heaved her over a porch banister, falling with her onto concrete about five feet below, prosecutors said.
The fall broke Rutherford’s neck and left her paralyzed. She struggled to survive until she died from a brain hemorrhage on Nov. 28, 2015.
Had Barber not pleaded guilty, jurors would have had to decide whether what happened was deliberate or accidental. Barber’s felony murder count alleged that whether he meant to or not, he fatally injured Rutherford while committing the felony of aggravated battery. The involuntary manslaughter charge alleged he unintentionally caused her death while committing the misdemeanor of simple battery.
In his plea to voluntary manslaughter, he agreed to serve 14 years of a 20-year sentence, with the rest on probation. All his other charges were dropped.
During Barber’s sentencing Thursday, Lowe said she could not forgive him for what he did to her daughter.
“You in just a few seconds ended all her dreams. You ended all our dreams,” she told him. “You’re the one that changed and destroyed our entire family life. Shanita was a loving and happy person. She would give you her own shirt off her back…. And here you come and took her away, someone who would be wonderful in the world. You took my baby Shanita, my dear Shanita. I hope her name will never leave your thoughts or your dreams.”
Rutherford’s family will not forget, she promised: “Our pain, grief and heartache is not funny or a joke or anything to take lightly. … I wish you wouldn’t get out at all. If by some chance you ever come for parole, my entire family will be there every time, because Shanita will never ever be forgotten.”
Barber also addressed the court, apologizing for Rutherford’s death and asking her mother to forgive him.
McBride told Barber he’ll have time to reflect on his life and priorities in prison: “You’ve been consistent in expressing contrition and remorse, and I do tend to agree that that’s a good first step…. And hopefully when you emerge, you will be rehabilitated, which I think is the intent of this sentence that the state has with your lawyer hoped to achieve in your case.”
Afterward Barber’s defense attorney, Nancy Miller, maintained that Rutherford’s fall was an accident resulting from horseplay.
“I still believe very strongly in our theory of the case, which was this simply was an accident with two people who were engaging in horseplay and fell over a railing, most likely due to being intoxicated and drinking,” she said. “This was absolutely an accident, and my client resolved the case with a plea, but it had nothing to do with any acknowledgment that this was deliberate or intentional. It was an accident, and he feels regretful about things because of the loss of life, as anyone would.”
Lowe told reporters afterward that she was relieved to see the proceedings end.
“It has been a long ordeal. I’m so glad to see it come to the end, to have some type of closure. It won’t bring her back, but to seek some type of justice for him to pay for the violent, malicious crime that he did do to her…. I guess it’s just time to move on. It’s hard to forgive. They asked for forgiveness, but I’m not at that point yet.”
The judge acknowledged the devotion she’d given her daughter’s case.
“I appreciate everything you have done to be here,” he told her. “I don’t think you have missed a single hearing; I don’t think you have missed a single minute of trial. I do hope that in time you find that healing.”