York county defendant welcomes biblical penance

Cassandra Belle Tolley

After Cassandra Belle Tolley pleaded guilty to driving drunk and crashing into a car, seriously injuring two people, a judge sentenced her to eight years in jail followed by five years of probation and substance abuse counseling.

Circuit Court Judge Michael Nettles also included another order in the sentence, one that’s much less common.

Tolley must read the Old Testament book of Job and write a summary.

It’s a rare ruling, according to legal experts.

Similar sentences have raised constitutional concerns, but Tolley’s case is special.

“Under normal circumstances, the judge wouldn’t have the authority to do that,” said Kenneth Gaines, a University of South Carolina professor of law specializing in civil and criminal litigation. “You can’t just arbitrarily add anything you want to a sentence.

“But if she consented, it’s really not an issue. It’s critical that the defendant was in entire agreement with it.”

Tolley’s attorney, Amy Sikora, a York County public defender, said Tolley was thankful for the assignment. She has already started working on it.

Nettles declined to comment. But those who were in court that day agreed his decision reflects compassion not just for the victims, but for Tolley, who after years of abuse turned to alcohol.

Tolley, 28, told her pastor and Sikora that a relative repeatedly abused her physically as a child.

On Thanksgiving Day, when Tolley was 11, Sikora said, a relative doused her with gasoline and set her on fire.

Burn scars are visible on her face.

Since moving to Rock Hill from Ohio, Tolley occasionally attended New Vision Free Will Baptist Church, where she met the Rev. Daggett Duncan.

“She’s a very, very, very humble, distraught person,” Duncan said. “Looking in her eyes, you could see the pain. You just couldn’t help but reach out.”

Tolley was drunk on Nov. 12, 2011, and driving in the wrong lane on Porter Road in Rock Hill. She crashed into a vehicle, severely injuring two men.

According to the York County solicitor’s office, Tolley’s blood alcohol level was 0.333 – more than four times the legal limit.

In prepared statements read in court, the victims said the injuries have dramatically altered their lives.

One of the men can’t sit for more than an hour at a time. Rods and screws were surgically implanted to support his spinal column. He relies on family to care for him.

The other man has undergone six surgeries and could lose his left foot.

Tolley has been plagued with regret since the crash, Duncan said.

“She’s extremely remorseful,” he said.

With Duncan’s help, Tolley turned to Jesus Christ.

That came up in court on June 20.

Tolley pleaded guilty and declared that she was a Christian.

Duncan spoke on her behalf as a character witness. He told Nettles that he and his wife, Judy, will take custody of two of Tolley’s three children — a 6-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy — while she’s away. The third child, an infant, will live with the father.

Throughout the court hearing, Tolley trembled and cried.

Duncan said that when Tolley she saw one of the victims in court, she turned and said, “I don’t deserve to live. I have ruined this people’s lives.”

Duncan and Sikora said they believe Nettles considered all of the circumstances before ruling.

His choice of Bible book is telling, Duncan said.

It tells the story of Job, a prosperous and righteous father of 10 who loses all his possessions and his livelihood.

His children are killed and he’s afflicted with painful sores.

But his faith in God never wavers.

Job overcomes. His health is restored, he has 10 more children and God doubles the possessions he lost.

“I think (Nettles’) faith and his compassion led him to use the book of Job,” Duncan said.

“Job made it through, and he wants her to know she can too.”

The charge Tolley pleaded guilty to, felony driving under the influence causing great bodily injury, carries a maximum punishment of 15 years in jail.

Jack Swerling, a Columbia defense lawyer who has been trying cases for 40 years, said he hasn’t witnessed a ruling quite like this one.

Swerling isn’t connected to Tolley’s case, but he said he has argued cases before Nettles.

“He is very well respected on both sides of the fence,” Swerling said. “He enjoys a really great reputation. My feeling about Judge Nettles is, he really tries to be fair.”

Given Tolley’s background, the ruling “is entirely appropriate,” Swerling said.

“It’s pretty clever and creative.”