Judge sentences two Summerville women to life in 3-year-old's beating death

Charleston County Courthouse officials tend to Erica Butts after she collapsed as she and co-defendant Shanita Cunningham were sentenced to life in prison for the death of a three-year-old girl in 2009.

Erica Mae Butts and Shanita Latrice Cunningham both collapsed in the courtroom today upon learning that they would spend the rest of their lives in prison for beating to death 3-year-old Serenity Richardson in 2009.

After the verdict, court officials had to carry out both women as they collapsed and family members from both sides sobbed. Circuit Court Judge Deadra Richardson said nothing had ever affected her as strongly as the photos of the little girl's battered body.

Serenity's mother, Ieshia Richardson, had been childhood best friends with Butts and had brought her daughter to stay at her godmother's home on Congaree River Drive in Summerville for about two weeks, beginning in late October 2009. Butts admitted to Summerville police on Nov. 3 that she whipped the girl with a belt for urinating on the floor, and that Serenity had fallen several times in the bathroom.

When the child's breathing became shallow that day, Butts called her own mother in Goose Creek but didn't tell her what happened. Butts' mother called 911.

By the time paramedics reached Serenity, she was already dead and had been placed on ice and exposed to bleach in desperate attempts to revive her. Assistant Solicitor Elizabeth Gordon said the girl's injuries reflected weeks of torture — a duration that matched the amount of time she had spent with Butts and Cunningham.

"There was not a plane of her body that was spared, save the soles of her feet," Gordon said.

During the hearing, Cunningham's attorney said her client is less culpable than Butts in little girl's death. Butts' attorney instead portrayed Cunningham as the "controlling and aggressive" partner in an abusive relationship, while describing Butts as a "meek" woman.

Butts said in court that she didn't know that Serenity was dying. She described her close relationship with Serenity's mother.

Ieshia Richardson had been the only person Butts confided in after she was raped at age 15, and Butts had been in the hospital with Richardson when Richardson gave birth to Serenity, her only child.

"I was responsible for some things, but I would never kill her," Butts said. Then, practically screaming through her sobs, turned to Ieshia Richardson and said, "I will always love you no matter what . . . I just want to tell you I'm so, so sorry."