A four-year battle that has torn a Murfreesboro family apart will come to a head in October when a man convicted of sexually abusing his daughter is sentenced.
Earlier this month, jurors found Matthew Whitehair guilty of five counts of attempted incest, two counts of aggravated sexual battery, two counts of sexual battery, one count each of statutory rape by an authority figure and sexual battery by an authority figure, as well as incest.
The verdict was handed down Aug. 7 after a grueling eight-day trial before Judge David Bragg in Rutherford County Circuit Court.
Bragg revoked his bond, and the 39-year-old New York native will remain in custody at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center until Friday, Oct. 4, when he is sentenced.
Prosecutors had sought numerous convictions of rape of a child, which would have resulted in Whitehair receiving a minimum of 25 years in prison due to mandatory sentencing guidelines.
“It was an intense trial. … There are no real winners. No matter how you look at it a family has been ripped apart,” said Tommy Roberts, a detective with the Murfreesboro Police Department, who worked alongside Detective Wayne Lawson to investigate the case.
“Even though we were unable to get the child rape charges to stick, we are happy with the verdict,” Roberts said. “The victim has gotten justice after fighting this battle alone, without almost no support from her immediate family, for a long time.”
Noting this is a case he will never forget, Roberts said the jury has helped the victim, now a 19-year-old woman living with her grandparents in New York, take another step toward recovering from years of abuse.
“She was abused from the time she was 11 years old until she was 15,” Roberts said. “She has been through a lot.”
During a recent interview, Debra Withey said her granddaughter felt justice was served despite the fact that the jury found Whitehair guilty of lesser charges.
“Thank God for the jurors in Murfreesboro,” said Withey, whose daughter is married to Whitehair. “They gave my granddaughter closure. She stood up for herself and fought for justice. There are no words to explain how proud I am of my granddaughter.
“Instead of running from a difficult fight, she faced it with unimaginable strength. And now, my granddaughter wants to use this tragedy in her own life for something good by helping other kids who have been abused. … She is such an inspiration.”
When asked whether her granddaughter plans to attend the sentencing hearing, Withey said, “She will be there … she wants to see this through to the end.”
And while she is happy about the verdict, Withey said her “heart still bleeds” because her daughter and granddaughter no longer have a relationship as a result of the allegations – claims that the rest of the Whitehair family, including his son, and dozens of his supporters have always insisted are lies.
“My client has denied all of these allegations from the beginning, from the first day these allegations were made,” said Brock East, who has represented Whitehair since the charges were filed four years ago.
“This is pulverizing as a case as I ever seen,” East said. “Supporters are having a difficult time coming to terms with what the jury decided. There are supporters who feel like this was an unjustified verdict, even though they respect the decision.”
According to court documents, Whitehair allegedly began sexually abusing his adopted daughter in 2005, not long after the family moved here from upstate New York.
The investigation into the alleged abuse began in October 2009 after the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services received information that Whitehair was possibly having an inappropriate relationship with a minor, later identified as his daughter.
“I interviewed the victim at the Police Department, and she disclosed multiple instances of sexual abuse, starting when she was in the fifth grade,” Roberts said.
The investigation culminated in February 2010 with a Rutherford County grand jury indicting Whitehair on 17 charges, five of which the jury found him not guilty.
“The jury basically came to a compromise – where there is smoke, there is fire,” East said, noting prosecutors were unable to ever present any physical evidence supporting the allegations.
“Regardless, it is true that there are no winners in this case,” he said. “It is a sad situation for everyone involved.”
Even so, East said his clients “will continue to fight these lies tooth and nail” because many people in Murfreesboro still believe Whitehair is innocent.
“We will keep fighting for him, as well as for his innocence,” he said, “and we will appeal this verdict.”