BEDFORD, Va. Seven years ago, Verna Horn helped put her daughter away for 40 years by testifying that Nellie Sue Whitt had run down her boyfriend with a pickup truck for $100,000 in insurance money.
But now Mrs. Horn says it wasn’t true. And she’s written a series of letters supporting her daughter’s claim that the death of Roy W. Thompson on a back road in Bedford County was just an accident.
“I know my daughter is innocent of this crime. I know she has served six years for a murder she did not do,” Mrs. Horn wrote in a letter to the state Parole Board, a copy of which was obtained by the Associated Press.
The Parole Board will consider Mrs. Horn’s letter when it hears Whitt’s case Thursday.
In addition to the letter to the Parole Board, Mrs. Horn wrote letters to her daughter in prison that support Whitt’s claim of innocence.
“I still don’t believe you killed him on purpose [it was an accident],” Mrs. Horn wrote Whitt last year.
Then why did she testify that Whitt had admitted killing Mr. Thompson on July 13, 1991 testimony that one of Whitt’s attorneys described as “devastating”?
Mrs. Horn refused to explain the contradictions between her testimony and the more recent statements, saying only that she didn’t lie during the trial.
“I was so confused at one point I even disowned my daughter because I was disappointed and hurt at her,” she wrote the Parole Board. “When she did things that I did not approve of I set out to get even.”
From prison, Whitt suggests an explanation: Her father, William Horn, had sexually abused her from about age 4 to 14.
“My mother was jealous of me,” she said. “I was Dad’s sex slave.”
Whitt said her allegations of sexual abuse never came up at trial “because I was told by my lawyers that I would be acquitted just on the facts,” and she didn’t want to embarrass her family by allowing the matter to be aired in court.
William Horn died two years ago.
Bedford Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy C. Krantz refused to talk about the case, which was prosecuted by former Commonwealth’s Attorney James W. Updike Jr., now a Circuit Court judge in Bedford. Judge Updike did not return a call seeking comment.
The new evidence places the legal system in a quandary, said Fred Lederer, a law professor at the College of William and Mary.
“As a matter of justice we should not ethically dismiss” it, Mr. Lederer said. But he said it could be a case “where there is absolutely no way to ever know the truth.”
“It’s a mess.”
Virginia allows introduction of newly discovered evidence for only 21 days after sentencing, the most restrictive process in the nation for inmates to exonerate themselves based on new evidence.
Whitt, painted by the prosecution as a scheming, greedy woman, signed Mr. Thompson’s name to an accidental death insurance policy and returned it to an agent 10 days before his death.
She said he insisted that she sign it and had given her power of attorney because he was under severe financial duress and emotional stress.
But her mother testified that the day Mr. Thompson died, Whitt called her and said: “I told you I was gonna do it and I did it. I murdered him.” She testified that Whitt had said earlier that she was going to kill Mr. Thompson to collect $100,000 from the accidental death policy.
Mrs. Horn admitted during her testimony that she didn’t like Whitt and that she had told Whitt’s brother, Don Horn, that she hoped Whitt would die. “I said, ‘I hope she gets the electric chair and I hope I pull the switch.’ ”
She also testified that she had tried to disown Whitt by claiming that she was not her real daughter and had been switched with another infant at birth.
Whitt’s sister and three brothers wrote then-Gov. George F. Allen in 1994 that their mother lied on the stand.
“I know she did,” Don Horn said in an interview. “I know she read the newspaper and that’s how she found out about Roy’s death. I know she lied when she said Sue called … and said she did it.”
The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld Whitt’s conviction in 1995, citing Mrs. Horn’s testimony and the insurance policy. The case was never appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court; Whitt has filed a complaint against her attorney with the Virginia State Bar for failing to file the appeal.
In a letter to Whitt dated Aug. 10, 1999, Verna Horn wrote, “I don’t remember you saying you were going to kill Roy and I know you didn’t.”
Four days later, she wrote: “I don’t remember all about the trial, but I know you didn’t tell me you killed Roy.”
Whitt has another supporter Maggie McDaniel, who operated a horse farm where Whitt and Mr. Thompson lived and worked. She said Whitt would not even have sought to collect on the insurance policy “except that I encouraged her for several days, for she had no money and was so devastated and upset that I did not feel she could pull herself together to work just yet, and she had two children to support.”
Whitt, 52, has suffered two heart attacks while in prison, the latest on March 25. She is indigent, and is trying to find a new lawyer to handle her appeal or seek clemency from Gov. James S. Gilmore III if she fails to win parole.
In a recent interview, she was asked if she murdered her boyfriend.
“No, sir, I did not!” she said. “I did not intentionally harm him in any way.”