Matthew Whitehair listens as a counselor (not pictured) describes how his daughter has been affected by years of sexual abuse during an Oct. 4, 2013, sentencing hearing in Rutherford County Circuit Court in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/M. Kemph)
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- A father convicted of sexually abusing his daughter will spend nearly a decade in prison as part of a sentence recently handed down in Rutherford County Circuit Court, bringing an end to a four-year battle that has torn apart a family.
Matthew Whitehair was ordered to serve two eight-year prison terms, to run concurrently, as well as a seven-year suspended sentence and placed on probation for life, following several hours of emotional testimony during an Oct. 4 sentencing hearing before Judge David Bragg.
The 39-year-old New York native will also have to register as a convicted sex offender with the state of Tennessee upon his release from prison.
“No one enjoys watching the destruction of a family,” said Bragg, who was visibly somber as he explained his decision. “There have been times, based on the testimony during this trial, that I wouldn’t have been surprised if this courtroom erupted into flames.”
Throughout this case, which has continued for several years, this court has found a “disturbing dichotomy” between the testimony and the people involved in this trial, Bragg said.
Flanked by his wife, who is the biological mother of the victim, their teenage son, and more than 50 supporters who insist he is innocent, Whitehair sobbed while learning his fate.
“I’ve never heard so many people come into this courtroom and testify so favorably on behalf of a defendant,” Bragg said. “Again, as has been explained to me several times, you all are family. It doesn’t matter what anyone says or does, you are still family. I hope you are able to regain your family at some point.”
Prior to being sentenced, Whitehair pleaded for mercy but did not address his adopted daughter, now a 19-year-old New York resident who lives with her grandparents, or the crimes when he took the stand on his own behalf.
“Please allow me to return to my family,” he said, just before breaking down into tears.
His brief comments followed more than three hours of testimony, including that of his daughter, during the sentencing hearing, which is conducted to help a judge determine an appropriate sentence.
“It took my family away from me,” said his daughter, whose identity is being withheld because The Murfreesboro Post does not release the names of victims of sexual crimes. “My brother and mom don’t speak to me. … It breaks my heart.”
She also took the time to address the dozens of people who attended the sentencing hearing on behalf of Whitehair, who they described as a Christian, hard-working man incapable of such crimes.
“There are a lot of people in here who don’t know me, and they are judging me,” she said. “They shouldn’t because they don’t know me personally, only by name. … I don’t understand how my family, my mother, says she loves me but doesn’t believe me. … I will always love my family, no matter what.”
In August, jurors found 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.
Prosecutors had sought numerous convictions of rape of a child, which would have resulted in him receiving a minimum of 25 years in prison due to mandatory sentencing guidelines.
During a recent interview, Tommy Roberts acknowledged the intensity of the trial – an eight-day saga that he said affected even the most seasoned detectives due to the family dynamics.
“There are no real winners. No matter how you look at it a family has been ripped apart,” said Roberts, a detective with the Murfreesboro Police Department, who worked alongside Detective Wayne Lawson to investigate the case.
“She has been through a lot,” he said in reference to the victim.
According to court documents, Whitehair allegedly began sexually abusing his 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 he was possibly having an inappropriate relationship with a minor, later identified as his daughter.
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.
Although defense attorney Brock East has not yet commented on the case since Whitehair was sentenced, in an August interview, he maintained that supporters will continue to fight “these lies tooth and nail."
“We will keep fighting for him, as well as for his innocence,” East said, “and we will appeal this verdict.”