Erie County Judge Judge William Cunningham shocked both the District Attorney and and the defense attorney when he sentenced Teri Rhodes to 9 to 18 years, almost the maximum, for voluntary manslaughter in the suffocation death of her newborn daughter. Both of them were expecting a much lighter sentence for the Mercyhurst College student who hid her pregnancy, gave birth in her on-campus apartment, and then left her newborn daughter in a plastic bag to suffocate. The defense attorney had hoped that the sentence would be under two years, which would allow Miss Rhodes to serve at the Erie County Prison, instead of a state prison for women.
There will undoubtedly be appeals. Prosecutor Brad Foulk was angered by Judge Cunningham’s suggestion that Foulk had treated Teri Rhodes more leniently than other defendants who were not white and college educated. Defense Attorney Philip Friedman called the sentence “an outrage”, vowing to appeal it and to seek to have Judge Cunningham removed from the case. He accused the judge of acting as prosecutor and jury, and giving a sentence inconsistent with the crime of voluntary manslaughter.
Judge Cunningham was right, and his rationale for sentencing shows that he thought very long and hard about the case.
The full 36 page rationale for sentencing can be found here.
[Warning: the details in this case are just heartbreaking. So many people came so close to stopping this crime, but none of them quite succeeded.]
While the judge had to accept the plea-bargain that reduced the charges to voluntary manslaughter, and therefore had to pronounce a sentence within the limits of that charge, he looked at the case differently during sentencing.
He explained that Miss Rhodes lied on a multitude of occasions to hide her pregnancy, even though she had many friends and a family who could have helped her. She also had access to services that could have helped her with the pregnancy, or taken care of the baby once it was born.
He also detailed the many people who had tried to help her, and who suspected that she was pregnant, including a friend, her coach, and both parents. If she had told one less lie, this baby would be alive today. Her repeated lies also showed that she was not “temporarily insane” and unaware of what she was doing.
Additionally, he pointed out that she had researched ways of getting rid of “her problem” for a long period of time. Though this evidence was not used for a charge of first degree murder, it did become an aggravating factor at sentencing.
When the judge looked at “mitigating factors,” he came to the conclusion that all of the things she had going for her, including her friends, her supportive family, and her personal qualities, were things that should have kept her from committing the crime, not things that made the crime less horrendous. If he accepted these as mitigating factors, then he would logically have to accept a two-tiered sentencing structure, where middle-class, intelligent criminals with good families received lighter sentences than less well-off criminals. He was not willing to accept this approach to sentencing.
He also looked at the sentence of Chytoria Graham, a local woman who had recently been sentenced to 5-10 years for aggravated assault, for swinging her 4-week old son at her boyfriend during a fight. He noted that it would be inconsistent to have a longer sentence for assaulting a child (who later recovered) than for actually killing a child. He also noted that in Pennsylvania, there are many cases where the minimum sentence for aggravated assault or rape of a child often leads to a longer sentence than actually killing a child.
Given all these considerations, he concluded that it was necessary to give a long sentence to emphasize the gravity of the offence of killing a baby. This was necessary though this particular defendant is likely not to be a repeat offender.
Anyhow, pray for Teri Rhodes. God has forgiven worse crimes, and her life could be turned around. If she is a good prisoner, she will be about 29 when she gets out, and there is life after age 29.