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An Arkansas farmer avoided a possible death sentence this week by pleading guilty to the brutal murder of a nurse he fatally hit with a pick-up truck, sexually assaulted, and buried in a rice field last year.
Quake Lewellyn, 29, pleaded guilty to capital murder and rape of Sydney Sutherland in a Newton courtroom on Friday, according to a plea statement obtained by Oxygen.com. He waived his right to a jury trial and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On Aug. 21, 2020, Sutherland’s body was found in a makeshift grave in a rice field in Jackson County, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com. She’d been reported missing two days earlier; her phone was found just over a mile from her home an hour after she vanished.
Lewellyn claimed he’d seen Sutherland running along a nearby roadway prior to her disappearance when questioned by authorities. During a consent search of his mobile phone, investigators traced his movements using a GPS app to a location about two miles away from where Sutherland's phone was found. Her body was later found in a field footsteps away from the pinned geographical location.
DNA testing later confirmed Sutherland’s identity. She died from blunt force trauma, according to a medical examiner’s report; her death was ruled a homicide.
"After a little more than thirteen months, Quake Lewellyn has answered for his inexcusable and horrendous actions upon an innocent young lady," John D. Pettie, the sexual assault prosecutor for the Third Judicial District said in a statement sent to Oxygen.com following sentencing. "It is the hope of this office that the Sutherland family can now have some closure and sense of finality."
Prosecutors said Sutherland's family had approved the plea deal, effectively eliminating the possibility he'd be sentenced to death.
"No length of incarceration, no punishment available under the law will ever be sufficient to provide retribution for the deeds of the evil mind that perpetrated these heinous acts," Pettie added. "This outcome ensures that Quake Lewellyn will never again breath free air and that the Sutherland family will not have to suffer the renewed trauma of appeal after appeal that accompanies death penalty cases."
Lewellyn ultimately admitted to striking Sutherland with his vehicle. He told a court psychologist that the collision occurred while “driving to check the wells and the rice fields.” Lewellyn said he’d accidentally hit Sutherland, blaming the collision on a cloud of dust that had obscured his line of vision.
“It was all just a blur,” Lewellyn said during the forensic evaluation. “At this point, I was scared and afraid I was gonna be in trouble for running her over.”
Believing Sutherland to be dead, Lewellyn loaded her onto his truck’s tailgate, drove her to a rice field, removed her shorts, raped her, and then buried her so he “wouldn’t be in trouble,” court filings show. After “messing with” Sutherland’s body, Lewellyn came home, ate dinner, and “tried to forget about it,” according to the court-ordered mental health screening.
Lewellyn was married and living with his wife and three stepchildren at the time of Sutherland’s murder.
Sutherland’s family, who packed the Newport courtroom on Friday to observe Lewellyn’s sentencing, sharply addressed him during proceedings.
“Quake, will you look at me in the eyes?” Maggy Sutherland, the victim's mother, asked during her reading of a victim impact statement, KLRT-TV reported. “Did she fight you? Did she cry? Did she ask for her brothers?”
Sydney Sutherland worked as a licensed practical nurse at Unity Health Harris Medical Center in Newport, her obituary stated. Her family described her as a “genuine spirit” and “a bright ray of sunshine” who loved animals, exercising, shopping, and books.
Lewellyn and Sutherland, who knew each other, attended the same high school in Tuckerman, Arkansas, police said. The 24-year-old, however, had recently unfriended Lewellyn on Facebook prior to her death, according to the case’s affidavit.
"She was not yours to take,” Maggy Sutherland added. “Satan is real. The hands you hugged me with are the same hands you killed her with."
Lewellyn’s legal team, meanwhile, also welcomed the guilty plea.
“My client and his family are glad this is over,” Bill James, Lewellyn’s public defender, told Oxygen.com on Monday. “It started out as an accident and just kind of went bad from there. He didn’t want to put anyone through any more pain so he felt like this was the best thing for everyone.”
Prosecutors had previously dismissed kidnapping and corpse abuse charges in Sutherland’s death in exchange for the plea deal, the lawyer said. James, who was adamant his client was remorseful, acknowledged Lewellyn would have likely faced capital punishment had the case proceeded to trial. He credited the Sutherland family for sparing Lewellyn’s life.
“We’re certainly very happy and thankful to the family of the Sutherlands,” James added. “They showed us mercy. Because the truth is, it was very likely going to head towards the death penalty. The pretrial publicity took over in a way I’ve never really been involved in before.”
In August, Lewellyn’s trial was moved from Jackson County to neighboring Lawrence County after the court ruled extensive pre-trial media coverage would taint an impartial jury, according to separate court documents.
James also commended Lewellyn’s family for cooperating with law enforcement — and for encouraging Lewellyn to confess.
“They took him up there, they told him to tell the truth, they told him to cooperate, and he did what they told him,” James said.
The Llewellyn family, who operate a sizable third-generation family farm, have agricultural interests spread across nearly half a dozen counties in Arkansas. They were recognized as the 2016 Jackson County Farm Family Of the Year, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“He’s a pretty simple guy so he did what they told him,” James explained. “They could have certainly steered it a different way...The family took a lot of abuse and they didn’t do anything. Any animosity that anyone is feeling towards the family is misdirected.”
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