Reporter’s notebook: How a quiet courtroom turned into tears and an eye-to-eye moment between the victim’s mom and killer

Local News

Editor’s note:  The name of the man convicted in this homicide was purposely left out of this article, as it is meant to focus on the victim’s family and statements made in court. 

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In 19 minutes, a quiet courtroom  turned into tears as a family spoke up for a voiceless Sydney Sutherland and a man’s life was ultimately spared in a surprise plea deal.

I am Fox16 News anchor Mitch McCoy — I was in the courtroom Friday as a Jackson County judge accepted a plea deal negotiated between the defense and prosecutor. Below is a firsthand perspective to Friday’s hearing.

I arrived to the Jackson County Courthouse around 11:30 a.m. Friday, hoping our photojournalist was able to get video of the man charged in Sutherland’s kidnapping, rape and murder walking into the courthouse.  I knew the plea deal had been negotiated, with the blessing of Sutherland’s family, and it would likely be the last time we would ever get video of the suspect again. I wanted to ask him, why? I wanted to know if he had any regrets. I wanted to know if he had any last words.

It had just finished raining in Jackson County. There were still some sprinkles. I knew law enforcement would arrive with the defendant in the back of the courthouse because that’s what they did last time. There was an Arkansas State Police trooper standing post at the door. I figured the trooper was waiting there for the same reason I was. I placed a call to Jackson County Sheriff David Lucas to ask him if there was an estimated time of arrival for the suspect. He told me the defendant arrived earlier that morning — at 9:30. We missed our chance but I knew we still could get an opportunity after court.

The area was flooded by Jackson County Sheriff’s deputies, Newport police officers and Arkansas State Police. They knew there would be more people at the courthouse than usual. Everyone went through a medal detector. The courtroom was on the second floor. We waited for the courtroom to open so people could get a seat.

At approximately 12:15pm, family and friends of Sutherland arrived — in a group. There were too many to count. I could hear the footsteps coming up the steps from the first floor.  Sutherland’s mother, Maggy, was leading the group.  She had two friends by her side. They were locked in arms. The group went to the third floor as a dozen or so people remain outside the courtroom.

About 20 minutes before the hearing, the courtroom doors opened. People started taking their seats. On the plaintiffs side, three of the back rows had filled up with people wearing pink — Sutherland’s favorite color. On the defense side, there were just a few people. Before the hearing started, court staff escorted family and friends of Sutherland into the courtroom which took up the first several rows. I estimated 60 or more people — most in the color pink.

The man charged in the case was escorted in by law enforcement. His wrists and feet shackled. His attorneys were there along with what I now know was his family. I had to look twice because the defendant’s appearance had significantly changed. He had lost weight since his arrest, his hair had been trimmed and he had no facial hair.

“All Rise,” a court bailiff announced at exactly 1pm, walking out of a door with a judge following behind.

The judge gave strict orders. Any outburst, he would throw you out. He informed the court that the media was unable to take video, photographs or audio record inside the court hearing. He allowed for reporters to live tweet though — which became the only real-time source for information to people who couldn’t be in the courtroom.

The prosecutor was asked by the judge to read the criminal complaint and charges. As Jackson County’s prosecutor started reading the details of the case, Maggy, Sutherland’s mother, started getting emotional. I had the opportunity to speak with Maggy in an exclusive one-on-one interview back in March. I was able to tell, from meeting her and having numerous conversations, she was trying to be respectful while fighting back tears. She was holding a tissue to her nose.

The prosecutor said the plea deal was capital murder, a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and rape, another life sentence. The deal took the death penalty off of the table. The judge then went into procedural matters. He asked if the defendant was entering the plea voluntarily. The suspect replied with a “yes”.  During some of the questioning, the judge told him to speak up.

Then, the victim impact statement.

Sutherland’s family, including some of her brothers, had a person read their statements to the defendant and court.

“I’ll never see Sydney again,” said one. “[You’re] a weak soul that took Sydney from us.’

Sam Sutherland, Sutherland’s brother, also had someone read his statement next.

“Every night has been sleepless, hoping it’s a bad dream,” he said. “I wish, hope and pray that God has absolutely no mercy on your soul.”

While the statements are being read, the defendant looked straight ahead, not looking or making eye contact with the reader. At times, he would look down at the table.

Sam went onto call the suspect a ‘monster’ for attacking his younger sister to a point her ‘body was so unrecognizable.’

“I wished I could’ve done something to help save my sister,” the statement read.

In another victim impact statement, the told the suspect that he’s a 300 pound coward that hit Sutherland with a 3,000 pound truck.

“The devil has a special place just for you and you can’t get there soon enough,” the statement read.

The last person to speak was Maggy.  She was shaking. Two of Maggy’s best friends were on each side, arms locked to help her stand.

She walked to the podium, which was located behind and on the opposite side of the defendant. 

“Look at me in the eyes,” she said.

In one of the most powerful moments in court, the suspect slightly nodded his head up and down, turned around his chair while still cuffed and looked at Maggy in the eyes.

“Did she fight you? Did she cry? Did she ask for her brothers? Was it really worthy it,” she said in a series of rapid questions.

Maggy went on with her statement. 

“You treated her like nothing but she was everything to me,” she read. “You didn’t just kill Sydney that day, something in me died, too.”

Before sharing the next statement, I think it’s important to provide context. Maggy told me in our exclusive interview that the defendant helped during the search for Sutherland. Maggy also told me that he hugged her during the search.

“The hands you hugged me with were the same hands you killed her with,” she said. “You thew her in a hole like she was trash.”

The defendant, still keeps eye contact with Maggy, as she tells him satan is ready for him.

“Your face was the last she seen,” said Maggy. “She was not yours to take.”

As Maggy finished her statement, you could her sniffles from people in the court. Some court staff were also in tears.

Maggy’s friends helped her walk back to her seat.

The judge asked the defendant to stand for sentencing. The negotiated plea deal meant the accused would plead guilty to capital murder and rape. He would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The prosecutor agreed to nolle prosequi the kidnapping and abuse of a corpse charge.

The defendant — turned convicted killer — was taken out of court directly into a patrol vehicle waiting at the back of the courthouse.

My photojournalist tried asking him if he had any regrets or last words but there was no reply. It appeared that he was carrying a Bible.

The entire hearing lasted approximately 19 minutes. Yep. In less than 20 minutes, the victim’s family said what they wanted, a judge sentenced him to life in prison and we saw a powerful moment.

I asked the defense team about their client looking at Maggy, at her request. The attorney said he thought it was a moment of owning up — his client took responsibility for what he did.

The case may be closed, but Jackson County is still flooded in the color pink, yard signs and billboards to remember the 25-year-old woman. Sutherland’s family said after the sentencing, there’s no amount of justice possible because Sydney isn’t here.

There is no opportunity to appeal the case.

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