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Harnett County Woman Will Not Face Jail Time For Baby's Death

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HARNETT COUNTY, N.C. — A jury has found a Harnett County woman guilty of involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor child abuse in the death of her newborn son, but she will not spend time in jail.

Sophia Whitley is accused of putting her newborn son in a plastic bag and hiding him in the trunk of a car after she gave birth in July 2002.

Whitley said she did not know that she was pregnant when she gave birth alone in the bathroom of her parents' house. She claims her son was stillborn, but a medical examiner disagrees.

After the verdict was read, Whitley's family and friends exchanged hugs of joy and relief.

"We're ready to spend some time together without this being on top of us," said Richard Whitley, Sophia's father.

Whitley was originally charged with first-degree murder, but Judge Ola Lewis threw out that charge for lack of evidence and decided the jury could consider second-degree murder. Whitley could have received 23 months in jail on the charges, but Lewis suspended the active portion of her sentence. Whitley will be under house arrest for six months and placed on probation.

"We were asking for second-degree murder and we think the evidence was there, so the jury could return such a verdict, but they have spoken," prosecutor Peter Strickland said. "We understand that verdict and live with that."

"Of course, not guilty would have been better, but this was the absolute best we could have hoped for," defense attorney Gerald Hayes said. "We're pleased with the outcome."

Under the terms of Whitley's probation, she will have to live at home and continue her mental health counseling. She will also have to undergo drug and alcohol abuse treatment, get her GED and maintain a job.

One of the jurors said there was discussion about whether Whitley should be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder. At one point, eight of the jurors believed she was guilty of involuntary manslaughter while four jurors believed she was guilty of second-degree murder. However, the jurors will able to come to an unanimous verdict.

"I feel like a mother should protect her child. That's the main thing -- protection," juror Brenda Eason said. "That's what we're for and I feel like she didn't do that."

North Carolina has a law meant to protect newborns. The infant abandonment law allows new mothers to leave children under 7 days old with a responsible adult, police or health care providers. In those cases,the mother will not face prosecution. The state adopted the law in 2001.


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