Tasmiyah Whitehead, one of the young twin sisters charged with the bloody 2010 killing of their mother in Conyers, pleaded guilty today to voluntary manslaughter and other charges.
Calling the killing of Jarmecca "Nikki" Whitehead a "tragedy of epic proportions," Rockdale County Chief Superior Court Judge David Irwin sentenced Tasmiyah to 30 years in prison.
Tasmiyah admitted in her confession to joining her twin sister Jasmiyah in a fight with Nikki that left their mother stabbed to death with a steak knife. The twins, now 20 years old, were 16 at the time of Nikki’s death. Jasmiyah faces a trial set to begin March 17.
Clad in chains and an orange prison jumpsuit, Tasmiyah frequently kept her head bowed, a solemn expression on her face. A star shape was shaved into her hair on the back of her head. Tasmiyah did not speak except to answer yes-or-no questions about her plea. "Yes, sir," she responded when asked if she was pleading guilty.
Lynda Whitehead, Nikki’s mother, was the only family member to speak to the court.
"I would just like to say today, I’m a broken mother and a broken grandmother," she said. "I love my daughter. I love my granddaughters. There are no winners here."
"I agree with you," Irwin replied quietly.
"If you do wrong in this world, there are consequences," Lynda Whitehead added. "Unfortunately, my granddaughters never learned right and wrong."
Rockdale County District Attorney Richard Read revealed many new details about the crime, describing the police investigation and Tasmiyah’s new confession step-by-step. The tale featured repeated violent arguments that ended in a brutal fight on Jan. 13, 2010, when Nikki’s body was found in the bathtub of her home at 2020 Appaloosa Way, Conyers. Read revealed that Nikki bit Tasmiyah in the combat and at one point ran to a neighbor’s house for help, leaving blood on the wall, before returning home to her death.
"This is a family that thrives in chaos," Read quoted a counselor as saying after previous attempts to defuse constant arguments and violence.
"Tragedy of epic proportions. I never knew what that meant until today," Judge Irwin said to Tasmiyah. He called her guilty plea a "reasonable resolution to a great tragedy."
Tasmiyah originally faced a murder charge, but the District Attorney’s Office agreed to accept her plea to lesser charges. Irwin sentenced her to 20 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter; five years for falsification in government matters; and five years for possession of a knife in commission of a crime. All are the maximum sentences, and Tasmiyah must serve them consecutively, meaning she will be in prison for the longest possible time. Irwin gave her credit for her time in jail awaiting trial.
"The way we show remorse is how you live each day," Irwin told Tasmiyah before bailiffs led her away. "I wish you the best of luck."
Family members, friends and reporters packed the small courtroom.
"It’s acceptable. It’s something I’ve got to live with," Lynda Whitehead tearfully said to The News immediately after Tasmiyah was sentenced.
Lynda Whitehead said she knew the twins were increasingly out of control, but never saw violence and never feared them.
"I didn’t think they would be violent ... I [had] never seen them violent with their mom. They were loving girls," she said. "Nikki was a loving person. She didn’t argue with people," she said. "She always brought people together."
She accused the twin’s great-grandmother, Della Frazier, who for years had custody of them, of teaching them to disobey their mother. "I didn’t want to go over there. I’d be in jail," she said.
In her final days, Nikki feared her daughters, Lynda Whitehead said. "She was talking to me on the phone like she was talking to police," adding that, "Jas was very ugly" in her behavior.
"She couldn’t be a jailer," Lynda Whitehead said of Nikki. "There was nobody to protect her from her children in her own house."
"I think to understand this case, you have to understand the background," District Attorney Read told the court.
He described the twins becoming increasingly disorderly as their mother and great-grandmother, Della Frazier, traded custody of them.
Well-behaved and getting good grades early in life, the girls ran into problems around age 13, when Nikki moved them away from Frazier to Conyers, where Nikki shared a house with her trucker boyfriend, Robert Head. Nikki believed the girls were sexually active and using marijuana, among other problems.
"The girls, on the other hand, were resentful of their mother’s attitude to them," Read said, especially because she drank and used marijuana herself.
At one point, one of the twins claimed to have been raped, and Nikki did not believe her, Read said.
Meanwhile, Frazier criticized Nikki’s lifestyle, while Nikki saw Frazier as interfering with raising her children for "financially motivated" reasons.
On June 28, 2008, Nikki called Conyers police, accusing the twins of attacking her. Minutes after officers calmed the situation down, Nikki ran out of the house to their police car, saying the girls attacked her again.
Officers saw that Nikki "had scratches and she had red marks she had not had three minutes before," Read said. They found marks on the girls as well. Police arrested the twins, and a Juvenile Court judge ruled them "ungovernable." He placed them in Frazier’s custody and ordered the whole family to counseling.
"Living with the great-grandmother has simply swapped one set of problems for another," Read said.
In late 2009, the twins were back in court for truancy and running away from home. A judge placed them back in Nikki’s custody.
The decision "caused chaos in the hallway of juvenile court," Read said. Jasmiyah was the most upset and "said in the presence of the victim (Nikki)...‘If I have to go live with you again, I’m going to kill you.’"
"During the next eight days, the drama continued," Read said. The girls misbehaved during the process of unenrolling them from their former school. Then Nikki misbehaved while enrolling them in Rockdale High.
Conyers police were called to the home twice in that time. One time, Nikki called, saying Tasmiyah was throwing food. The next day, Tasmiyah called saying that a dispute between her and an aunt led to a "pushing match" at a welcome-home party for the twins.
On the afternoon of Jan. 13, 2010, Tasmiyah ran from the house and approached a Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office deputy who happened to be nearby. She told the deputy her mother was dead.
Nikki’s body lay in a bathtub, with multiple stab wounds. Many were shallow, but there were deep wounds penetrating both lungs, the jugular vein and the spinal cord. A medical examiner later ruled the wounds were all "survivable" if Nikki had been treated immediately.
The twins, crying and upset, told police they came from school and found their mother dead. The night before, Nikki argued on the phone with another boyfriend, and was so intoxicated the twins had to help her into bed, they said. That morning, they claimed, they missed the school bus but were unable to get any response from behind their mother’s locked bedroom door.
"They continued to deny any knowledge of their mother’s death," Read said.
But Conyers police noticed that both twins had scratches, cuts and bite marks on their arms and fingers. The girls had various explanations for the wounds. Tasmiyah at one point claimed that "when she became stressed, she would bite herself," Read said.
Meanwhile, the medical examiner noted that there was no forced entry and no sign of sexual assault. The violence of the killing looked like a "crime of passion ... not a stranger-on-stranger case."
Police ruled out Nikki’s boyfriends as suspects with evidence ranging from DNA testing to phone and GPS records.
The twins, however, quickly had evidence closing in on them. Security video from the Shell gas station on West Avenue, near the crime scene, showed the twins walking on Green Street and getting into a car with an unknown driver around 10:15 a.m., long after they told police they had gone to school. Video footage and a hall pass from the high school showed they arrived there around the same time.
That left investigators with a "two- to three-hour unexplained gap in time" in the twins’ story, Read said.
A forensic dentist examined the bite marks on the twins, comparing them with tooth impressions taken from them and Nikki’s body.
"To a reasonable degree of probability, the bite on Tasmiyah Whitehead’s left arm was placed there by her mother," the forensic dentist judged, according to Read.
DNA matching the identical twins, who cannot be distinguished from each other genetically, was found in blood on a broken vase and shoes inside the house, Read said.
Based on all of that evidence, police charged the twins with murder in May 2010.
In her confession, Tasmiyah admitted to a different version of events. The twins indeed were late to school, but they argued with Nikki about it in the kitchen. Nikki threw a pot at Jasmiyah, then "grabbed a steak knife and a fight began," Read said Tasmiyah claims.
"At one point, the fight actually stopped and her mother went ouf the house...(and) returned sometime later," Read said, adding that claim matches evidence that Nikki went next door for help.
"We found blood on the wall of the house next door," Read said. The resident of that house heard repeated door-knocking and doorbell-ringing "he described as frantic," but did not see anyone outside.
After that, Tasmiyah claims, Nikki returned to the house, picked up the knife and "lunged" with it, starting the fight again. In the fray, Nikki was stabbed to death, Read said.
As he finished the story with Nikki’s death, Tasmiyah hung her head.