A Rock Hill woman pleaded guilty on Monday afternoon to reaching speeds of more than 100 miles per hour while driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and killing a 22-year-old mother of two who she had once cared for at her parents’ child care center.
The fatal wreck happened in February around 4 p.m. on one of Rock Hill’s busiest state highways, S.C. 161.
In a York County courtroom on Monday, prosecutors said Cassie Cunningham was barreling down Celanese Road at 107 miles per hour just two seconds before she collided with the car that 22-year-old Kristen Knight was driving.
Cunningham rear-ended Knight at an intersection, sending Knight’s car across the road’s median and into the path of another vehicle. The force of Cunningham’s SUV hitting Knight’s small sedan caused an “accordion” effect, prosecutors said, adding that the back of Knight’s car was smashed almost to her driver’s seat.
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Knight died in a hospital emergency room, suffering multiple injuries to internal organs and several broken bones.
Cunningham, 36 at the time of the wreck, had smoked marijuana and consumed enough alcohol to put her at more than three times the legal limit to drive in South Carolina, authorities said. On Monday, she was sentenced on a felony DUI charge to 23 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett told presiding circuit Judge Brian Gibbons that Cunningham’s extreme choices and the consequences warranted the maximum sentence for a felony DUI of 25 years. The fact that Knight’s two young children weren’t in the car at the time is “the only good thing that can be said about this case,” he said.
“Everything in this case is extreme,” Brackett said, emphasizing Cunningham’s high speed, her level of intoxication, the families’ connections to one another and the details of the injuries that Knight succumbed to.
Cunningham once cared for Knight at her parent’s Rock Hill day care center.
Before being sentenced, Cunningham apologized to Knight’s family and her own. She also asked all the children she once cared for to “forgive me for letting you down.”
She recalled, “Kristen was one of those children. I prayed with her as a little girl. I’ll carry that memory with me.”
Cunningham’s mother, stepfather, brother and fiance spoke on her behalf in court. Her attorney said she’d struggled with addictions all of her life, with some years of sobriety. He also said Cunningham suffers from bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders brought on by years of physical and sexual abuse.
Her brother asked Gibbons to show Cunningham mercy, saying, “She’s not a career criminal; she’s a loving mother.”
Prosecutors, Knight’s family and Gibbons all pointed to Cunningham’s previous DUI charge in Rock Hill from 2008. Then, she was arrested but enrolled in an alcohol education court program. Her license was temporarily suspended and reinstated less than one year later.
Since her daughter’s death, Kristen Knight’s mother, Donna Aaron, has lobbied local lawmakers to ensure stricter sentences are applied to repeat DUI offenders. On Monday, Gibbons heard an emotional plea from Aaron that her family see justice for Knight’s death.
Knight’s husband, Tommy Knight, said Kristen’s death has affected their family tremendously. “My son asks me everyday, ‘Where’s my mama?’ ”
Tommy Knight has a civil wrongful death lawsuit pending against Cunningham. Her attorney has denied the allegations brought forth in that suit.
Knight’s mother spoke about forgiveness and said, “No one deserves to be hated,” and that a “release of the past” is the way to freedom.
Gibbons told Cunningham, “You know that God has forgiven you, but you also know there’s consequences for your action.” With Knight dead and Cunningham headed to prison, “four children have lost their mamas – that’s what I’m looking at here,” the judge said.