October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

Five days of testimony and still there was no good answer to the question: Why did Shirley Henson shoot Gena Foster? Yes, the women were involved in high-speed maneuvering on Interstate 65 outside Birmingham, Ala., last November. And, yes, when they stopped their cars on an exit ramp, Foster stormed angrily toward Henson’s Toyota 4Runner SUV. But why did Henson fire her .38-cal. revolver point-blank into the face of the unarmed Foster? “I took her life because I was scared,” Henson wanly told a jury during her murder trial. “I thought she was going to kill me.”

The jury wasn’t convinced. On Oct. 3 they found Henson, 41, a married legal secretary with a 19-year-old son, guilty of manslaughter, deciding against a murder verdict that could have sent her to prison for life but also rejecting her claim of self-defense. Free on $50,000 bond, Henson could receive anywhere from 20 years in prison to probation when she is sentenced on Dec. 4.

Foster, 34, a circuit-board solderer and divorced mother of three, was driving home in a Pontiac Grand Prix last Nov. 8 when, witnesses testified, Henson began flashing her high beams and tailgating at around 80 mph. Once off the interstate, Foster hit the brakes and hopped out. Still behind the wheel, Henson, who claimed Foster spat in her face, grabbed her gun from a console between the seats and fired once.

What puzzled jurors, one told PEOPLE, was that Henson rolled down her window when Foster approached, even though she claimed to be terrified. (She testified that she opened it to yell for help.) Henson “is at peace” with the verdict, says her lawyer David Johnson III, who nevertheless plans to appeal if the sentence is harsh. “She is profoundly upset about what happened, and she feels that God must punish her in some way.”

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