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Woman sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2020 shooting death of Hall man
Rita Sanders
Rita Sanders

A Cleveland woman was sentenced to 15 years in prison after shooting a Hall County man with a shotgun loaded with birdshot, according to court documents and officials.

Rita Joan Sanders, 68, pleaded guilty Wednesday, Nov. 30 to an amended charge of voluntary manslaughter, and Senior Judge James E. Cornwell Jr. sentenced Sanders to 15 years in incarceration.

Sanders was originally charged with murder in the June 30, 2020, shooting of Mitchell Smallwood, 41, on Happy Hollow Road in Cleveland.

Mitchell Smallwood
Provided by Virgil Smallwood

Enotah Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jeff Langley said Sanders had taken her former daughter-in-law into her home. The woman had broken off a relationship with Smallwood, and Smallwood came to Sanders’ home to get his belongings.

Langley said Sanders asked Smallwood to leave, later grabbing a shotgun loaded with birdshot and threatening the Hall County man to leave.

“Ultimately, at the time she shot him, he was moving away, not moving toward her,” Langley said. “Therefore, there was no self-defense justification that would have acquitted her of a crime. Technically, if you will, we could check every box to convict her of malice murder.”

Murder would have carried a life sentence, and parole cannot be considered for 30 years.

Langley said Sanders likely would have argued at a trial that she had no intent to kill Smallwood and that she believed birdshot would not be fatal.

“She was misinformed,” Langley said. “Birdshot can certainly cause death, and in this case it did.”

Defense attorney Penny Hunter declined to comment.

Langley said Sanders had no prior violent history, and there was no indication that she would reoffend.

In a hearing that lasted roughly eight hours, the prosecution asked for 15 years in custody, while the defense sought straight probation.

Langley said he considered it a “carefully planned and crafted compromise that I think reached a fair and just result in the case.”

Smallwood’s brother, Virgil Smallwood, said Wednesday was an emotional day but that he felt justice was served.

Lauding the work of the district attorney’s office, Virgil Smallwood said the reduced charge was the best option to secure a conviction.

Feeling as though a burden had been lifted, Smallwood’s brother said there was a “sigh of relief to see her actually leave the courtroom in handcuffs.”