Conflicting emotions filled a Charleston County courtroom Friday when a young man whose drunken driving killed a Charleston woman stood shackled, waiting to be sentenced.
One side of the room saw a reckless man who made a choice that took the life of a loved one.
The other side saw a good and remorseful fellow who made a tragic mistake.
Samuel McCauley, 20, of Mount Pleasant, stood in the middle, apologetic and hopeful for mercy after pleading guilty in May to felony DUI and reckless homicide in the death of 72-year-old Eleanor Caperton.
Caperton was driving home from work on July 23, 2011, when McCauley, driving the wrong way on Interstate 26, slammed into her car head-on.
“Hopefully your loss of liberty will serve as a stop sign for others.” Circuit Judge Thomas Hughston said, moments before sentencing McCauley to a 15-year prison term.
McCauley must serve about eight years of that sentence before he is eligible for release.
Dressed in a striped jail jumpsuit and handcuffed, standing beside his mother, Denise McCauley, Samuel McCauley gave one final plea to the judge before he was sentenced.
“I wish I could have died instead of her,” McCauley said. “I’ll be sorry forever.”
The last thing McCauley remembered the night of the crash was being at the Dolphin Cove Marina, where he had been drinking with some friends before he woke up in a hospital, said his attorney, Capers Barr. McCauley asked a police officer to kill him when he learned that he had taken someone else’s life, according to Barr.
McCauley’s actions since his arrest were also outlined by Barr, including how he spoke to two schools about his experience in hopes of preventing other deaths at the hands of drunk driving.
Thirty-four people gathered in the courtroom to show support for McCauley, according to Barr, who also read letters from teachers and a counselor in support of McCauley.
McCauley attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville. His mother, who is a court reporter, apologized for the grief her son has brought upon so many people but vowed to stand by him.
“I love him because he is my son, but I cherish him because he’s always been a very good person,” Denise McCauley said.
McCauley’s remorse was not enough to convince Hughston that he should get only one year in prison, as Barr suggested.
McCauley could have been sentenced up to 35 years. Ninth Circuit Assistant Solicitor Jennifer Kinzeler pointed out that McCauley’s blood-alcohol level the night of the crash was more than two times the legal limit, and he was 19 at the time.
“These kinds of cases are not about smart people or less intelligent people. They’re not about who can fill the courtroom with the most people,” Kinzeler said. “These cases are not about good people and bad people. These cases are about choices and consequences beyond remorse and guilt.”
Caperton’s sister, Phyllis Savenkoff, detailed her sister’s injuries before she died, which included neck trauma, rib fractures and laceration of her lung. “I can’t imagine the pain she suffered,” Savenkoff said.
Caperton’s son, Ronald Gray, testified that the wreck was a senseless and preventable act. “She didn’t deserve this, and I miss her terribly,” he said.
Friends and family said Caperton, known as Ellie, loved vacationing and loved her family, which included grandchildren. Caperton, who worked as a bank teller in Hanahan for more than 50 years, also worked as a security guard on weekends.
The night of the crash, Caperton was on her way home to Ladson at the end of her security shift around midnight.
McCauley had been driving 60 mph the wrong way on an on-ramp with a speed limit of 30 mph, according to prosecutors, before hitting Caperton’s vehicle.
He suffered a fractured sternum and lacerations to a knee. Caperton died at Medical University Hospital.
McCauley will get credit for the 267 days he already has served in jail as he heads to prison. He will be on probation for five years when released. He also is required to conduct public service, much like the speaking engagements he’s already done about drunk driving.
Caperton’s family wanted him to get the maximum sentence, while McCauley’s supporters wanted the judge to be as lenient as possible. In the end, Hughston came down somewhere in the middle.
“I am always guided by those ancient words to do justice and love mercy,” Hughston said.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.
Ellie Caperton’s son, Ronald Gray (right), said of his mother, “I miss her terribly.” At left are Caperton’s sister, Phyllis Savenkoff, and her niece, Gina Buchardt. Samuel McCauley (inset), with his lawyer Capers Barr and his mother Denise McCauley, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for causing Caperton’s death.×
Samuel McCauley was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison for a fatal DUI wreck last year.×