AIKEN -- Only crutches that trembled as she sobbed kept Shayna Lively from doubling over in tears as she pled guilty Friday in a shaken courtroom to three counts of felony DUI.
Five weeks shy of her 20th birthday, she will be almost 42 before she can be considered for parole. She will spend the prime of her life in prison for killing a father and two small children while driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
The hearing tested the emotions of everyone in the Aiken courtroom, even Circuit Court Judge Gary Clary, who sentenced the Martinez teen-ager to 25 years and fined her $10,000.
There were actually three 25-year sentences, one for each death, but Miss Lively will serve them concurrently. The state Department of Corrections will decide after an evaluation where Miss Lively will serve her time.
Miss Lively sobbed often at Friday's hearing, especially when 2nd Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan read the names of the dead listed in the charges against her -- Dexter Bernard Hearns, 31, and his daughters, 18-month-old Zainab Hearns and 3-year-old Imani K. Momodu.
"In all my years of practicing law, this has got to be the worst one I've ever seen," said Judge Clary before handing down the sentence, one day after celebrating his seventh year as a circuit judge. "I don't believe I've ever seen this much sadness in a courtroom. There's enough here today to go around for a long time."
Judge Clary, who has a child the age of Miss Lively, urged the teen to participate in addictions programs in prison and to complete her education.
Sniffles and sobs and the rustling of tissue broke the silence of a sterile court proceeding. It even reduced to tears lawyers who prosecute death penalty cases.
Miss Lively's attorney James Whittle put it in words:
"I have children of my own, and I've asked myself, what if those were my children. And then my wife asks me, `What if that was your child behind the wheel?"'
Careful not to erase the dead from the hushed courtroom, and to remind Miss Lively of those she killed that January night, Lorenzo Hearns, Mr. Hearns' elder brother, showed Judge Clary one of the last pictures of the Augusta sheetmetal worker holding his girls closely to his heart -- Imani with her hair in braids and Zainab in a pink ruffled gown.
A big man, but always gentle with his daughters, Mr. Hearns had learned to do the intricate braids himself and to fluff dainty ruffles. He never minded changing diapers, either.
"I remember when Dexter was teething. I remember when he took his first steps. And I remember him growing up to be the man we all knew and loved," Mr. Hearns said. "And most of all, I remember the day I carried him to his resting place. It wasn't just three people who died that night. A little bit of all of us died with them."
Standing before the judge on crutches and clad in orange, Miss Lively told the court she should be punished for the Jan. 11 crash that killed Mr. Hearns and his two toddler girls when she collided with their car while traveling the wrong way on Interstate 20, and that she would respect whatever sentence was handed her.
"The most important thing I want to say is that I'm very sorry," Miss Lively said as she turned to face the family of the deceased. "I know it will be hard to forgive me, but I pray for you and them everyday. I pray for them every morning that I wake up, before every meal I eat, and before I lay my head down at night. I never knew them, but I love them. And I love you all, too."
Upon realizing what she had done, Miss Lively said she wanted only to plead guilty. And once transferred to the Aiken jail, she never asked for bond.
Even those who had convicted Miss Lively in their minds couldn't help feeling for the girl who dropped out of high school at 16, dabbled with drugs and alcohol, received her high school diploma through a mail-order course and eventually squirreled away enough money to enroll in college.
At the time of the collision, she worked at a grocery store and was in her second quarter at Augusta Technical College, where she was studying child development.
"If you didn't get emotional today, you're simply not American," said Cpl. Jones Gamble of the South Carolina Highway Patrol. "It was a true test of emotional strength."
But the facts of the case are also compelling. As Mr. Whittle put it, "They are as bad as it could possibly get."
Here's what happened, as described in court:
Several hours before the accident, Miss Lively and a friend, Lakeisha Ford, met two young men at Amigo's Mexican restaurant in Augusta, where the four consumed alcohol, although both girls were under age.
The four drank some more at the North Augusta home of one of the young men, the girls said. They also smoked marijuana, which investigators believe might have been laced with cocaine.
Both girls denied using cocaine at all that night, although it was present in Miss Lively's system, according to one of the blood tests made after the wreck. It did not show up in another test, however.
The testimony was the first independent corroboration of medical records The Augusta Chronicle received from an anonymous source in February.
They show, and the court proceeding Friday confirmed, that Miss Lively's blood-alcohol level was .218, more than twice the legal presumption of drunkenness, and she tested positive for cocaine and marijuana.
Miss Ford said she and Miss Lively were disoriented as they left the residence, and the attendant at one gas station urged them to let him call a taxi.
But Miss Lively drove off and stopped at another station. While Miss Ford was nauseated in the restroom, the solicitor said Friday, the attendant at that station tried to take Miss Lively's car keys but failed. She drove away again, leaving her friend behind.
A videotape of that night at the convenience store showed a giddy and intoxicated Miss Lively, who repeatedly tried walking through a front window, mistaking it for a door.
Moments later, she weaved onto Interstate 20, driving onto an off ramp and into oncoming traffic.
At the seven-mile marker, she met the Hearns family, ending their lives and forever altering her own. State trooper Josh Miller was one of the first officers to arrive at the wreck. He recalled being surprised that Miss Lively -- who he said reeked of alcohol -- survived in the mangled metal.
He was surprised that the children who died were not bloody. They were clean and neat as when their father put them in the car, Trooper Miller said. But their heads sagged on broken necks.
"It's difficult not to take it home with me," the trooper said. "Sometimes I wake up and I see nothing but those little faces."
He said Mr. Hearns was doing everything South Carolina law expected of a careful driver. His car had air bags. He was wearing a seat belt, and he had placed both children in safety seats.
There was an early question about whether the seats were properly anchored, he said, but that was later dispelled. Mr. Hearns had done all he could do to keep his children safe.
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