The accident that took Raquel McKnight’s life started as a “trip down memory lane” with her boyfriend a year and half ago — and Tuesday, a judge sentenced Kourtney Murphy to serve 48 months of probation for the DUI charge he faced in connection with the fatal East St. Louis crash.
Murphy and McKnight had been dating for a few months and decided to visit the spot they met — Oz Night Club in Sauget — after attending a New Year’s Eve party.
The two were driving on Mississippi Avenue in East St. Louis and using Google Maps to find their way in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2016, defense attorney Dedra Moore said. Murphy had been looking down at his phone while driving, Moore said. When he brought his eyes back up to the road, he thought he saw oncoming headlights and swerved to the right, the defense attorney said.
Their Chevrolet Impala hit a support beam in a train overpass, and McKnight was ejected.
“It literally cut the car in half,” St. Clair Assistant State’s Attorney James Fuld said. “He struck (the beam) with such force that we couldn’t recover the airbag box to determine how fast the car was driving.”
Murphy had a blood alcohol content of 0.174 according to a Breathalyzer test conducted at a police station, Fuld said.
McKnight, described as a young mother to two young children, died shortly after the accident. Murphy has been in custody at the St. Clair County jail ever since.
“I just wanted to please her and take her down memory lane to where we met,” Murphy said in a statement during his sentencing. He added that when he met her, he knew he had met his future wife.
The 40-year-old St. Louis man pleaded guilty to the aggravated DUI charge in June — in doing so, prosecutors agreed to dismiss a second charge of reckless homicide.
Fuld said Tuesday that McKnight’s mother had prepared a victim impact statement — usually read to the court during sentencing. However, she couldn’t attend Tuesday’s court hearing because of unexpected transportation and child care issues. The prosecutor asked Judge Robert Haida to sentence the man to eight years in prison.
“We believe the court can send a message here that driving under the influence is unacceptable ... when a life is lost, there must be serious consequences,” Fuld said.
Moore brought three witnesses to testify on behalf of Murphy’s character.
Murphy’s mother Pamela Jarrett said her son was devastated emotionally and has had a hard time coping with McKnight’s death while in jail. She asked for leniency in the sentencing so that the man could come home to take care of his young children and get the help he needs.
“He needs some kind of help so he can grieve and can cry,” she said. “He needs to be out so he can get his life back. I didn’t know the young lady, but I know my son — he’s so sensitive. ... He just needs to be home so he can get some help and some closure.”
Bishop Jerome Bracely, executive director of Stepping Into The Light Ministry in St. Louis, and Murphy’s step father Melvin Jarrett also addressed the court.
“We can’t bring her back, but we sure can try to fill a void and help ease their life,” Melvin Jarrett said of McKnight’s family. “I don’t want to see him go that route — being underestimated as a criminal.”
Bracely said he runs a Christian-based program that helps men overcome addiction and cope with life struggles in order to lead healthy, productive lives.
“I’m here to offer my services to this young man. ... He’s a decent you man; he needs a chance,” Bracely said. “I believe with all my heart this was an accident.”
Moore asked Haida to sentence Murphy to probation, an option under Illinois DUI law when there are “extraordinary circumstances” in a case.
“The victim in this case was someone ... he knew, someone he loved,” Moore said. “That is punishment enough.”
Murphy also addressed the court, at times pausing to choke back tears.
“Today isn’t about me, today is about Raquel,” he said. “I want you to know my poor decision ended in the worst way possible.”
He described McKnight as funny, loyal, beautiful, talented and “most of all — real.” It’s what he said he loved most about her.
Haida contemplated the man’s case at length before sentencing him to probation, noting he had served 18 months of jail time since the accident occurred — which was “appropriate and sufficient.”
“I am going to find that, under these circumstances ... your actions were not intentional and that you will suffer every day of your life,” the judge said to Murphy.
Murphy was visibly emotional before being escorted out of the room by deputies.
“I wanted to show her I am a good man and would be a good husband,” Murphy told the court. “But it all got cut short — I’ll never get that chance. ... I deeply apologize for the mistake I made on Jan. 1, 2016.”