Just a week shy of the anniversary of her sister’s 2011 death in a head-on wreck with a very drunk teenager, Phyllis Savenkoff learned that the young man’s prison time has been cut in half.
Samuel McCauley, now 21, could be released after serving five years under a May 20 decision by Circuit Judge Thomas L. Hughston Jr. to reduce his sentence.
The 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office was unaware of the ruling until July, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said, and her office broke the news to the family of the late Eleanor Caperton on Wednesday. McCauley was originally sentenced in January to 10 years in prison.
“I didn’t expect the shock I got today,” Savenkoff said.
“This was literally done behind our backs,” she said. “We should be able to face the judge and have our say.”
Wilson agreed that there should have been a hearing, and filed a motion late Wednesday seeking to reopen the case.
“The court’s approach to resentencing the defendant threatens the integrity of our criminal justice system,” her motion said. “The court did not preserve and protect the victims’ rights to justice and due process and could not be considered as treating the victims with fairness, respect and dignity.”
In the fatal wreck at the heart of the case, Caperton, Savenkoff’s 72-year-old sister, had been driving home to Ladson around midnight on July 23, 2011, from her weekend job as a security guard. McCauley drove the wrong way up a ramp to the interstate going an estimated 60 mph and struck her car head-on. Caperton was taken to Medical University Hospital, where she died.
McCauley, though underage, had spent the evening drinking with friends at Dolphin Cove Marina. He told police that was the last thing he remembered before waking up in a hospital. His blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit for adults.
“I wish I could have died instead of her,” McCauley said at his January sentencing hearing, after pleading guilty to reckless homicide and to felony DUI involving death. “I’ll be sorry forever.”
Hughston originally sentenced McCauley, of Mount Pleasant, to 15 years on one charge and 10 on the other, ordering that McCauley serve the sentences concurrently and spend 10 years in prison before being released on probation.
Weeks later, McCauley’s lawyer, Capers Barr III, filed a motion seeking a lesser sentence. Barr argued that McCauley’s sentence was more severe than those of others in Charleston County who had pleaded guilty to the same charge.
The sentence was so long, said Barr, “it could result in changing a naturally kind and gentle person into a more hardened, distrustful person.”
The Solicitor’s Office filed a motion opposing a sentence reduction, saying that McCauley’s sentence was not “grossly disproportionate.”
Ninth Circuit Assistant Solicitor Jennifer K. Williams said McCauley had been sentenced to less than a third of the possible 35 years he faced on the two charges “all for taking the life of another human being who had the fatal misfortune of having to share the road with this defendant on the night he planned — days in advance — to drink with his friends, underage, to the point of becoming grossly intoxicated.”
There was no hearing held on the rival motions, and on May 20, Hughston signed an order cutting McCauley’s prison time in half to five years, with little explanation in the order for his decision. Hughston could not be reached for comment at his office Wednesday afternoon.
In the order, Hughston lamented the lack of specific state sentencing guidelines, commenting that he could have sentenced McCauley to anything between one and 25 years on the felony DUI charge.
“My amended sentence more closely corresponds to the federal guidelines for such an offense,” Hughston wrote in the order.
Barr said he learned of the decision to reduce the sentence in May, because his office was monitoring the case on the Clerk of Court’s website. Barr said he also copied Wilson’s office in May on a letter to the judge, seeking to clarify the sentencing change.
“I assumed, hearing nothing since late May, that everyone had been informed and that this was a done deal,” Barr said Wednesday. “My very young client believes that this (amended sentence) is his future, and I hope that’s the case.”
Wilson said the issue should be reopened, to comply with South Carolina’s Victims’ Bill of Rights.
“If a defendant’s sentence were increased, a defendant certainly should have the right to be heard regarding ... new information and to be present at the pronouncement of the new and different adverse sentence,” Wilson said in her motion. “Likewise, the victims should have a right to be present and to be heard at any re-sentencing when new information is considered and the court is considering a sentence adverse to their requests and a departure from the previous sentence.”
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.
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