Erica Mae Butts and Shanita Latrice Cunningham, a lesbian couple collapsed, wailed uncontrollably and hyper-ventilated in the Charleston courtroom after hearing they would serve life for killing a three-year-old girl.
Erica Mae Butts and Shanita Latrice Cunningham had to be picked off the floor by court officials and held in chairs as they were wheeled out of the room.
The two women, both 25 from Summerville, South Carolina, were told on Friday they will spend the rest of their lives in prison for beating Serenity Richardson to death in 2009 while the toddler was in their care.
Serenity Richardson was visiting Erica Mae Butts, her godmother and her mother’s best friend, and Shanita Latrice Cunningham, who was Butts’s lover, for two weeks at their home in Summerville, South Carolina when the abuse took place.
“It is nearly impossible for words to accurately describe what these women did to that poor little girl,” said Elizabeth Gordon, assistant managing solicitor for Charleston County.
“They beat her repeatedly both with a belt and with plastic coat hangers. You can see the outlines of the strikes on this child’s body. There is not one area of this child’s body that was unharmed except for the soles of her feet.”
Erica Mae Butts admitted to Summerville police on Thursday that she whipped Serenity Richardson with a belt for urinating on the floor.
Serenity’s mother, Ieshia Richardson, a childhood friend of Erica Mae Butts, lives in Detroit.
“The explanation they gave (for the beatings) was that Serenity had a potty accident,” Elizabeth Gordon said.
“Their explanation is <<we didn’t know what we did would kill her>>.
“They knew what they did was wrong.”
At the time paramedics reached the toddler, she was already dead and had been placed on ice and exposed to bleach in desperate attempts to revive her.
Circuit Court Judge Deadra Richardson said nothing had ever affected her as strongly as the photos of the little girl’s battered body.
In August, Erica Mae Butts entered an Alford plea, meaning she maintains her innocence but acknowledges that taking her case to trial would likely result in a conviction. Shanita Latrice Cunningham pleaded guilty.
Erica Mae Butts had been in the hospital with Ieshia Richardson when she gave birth to Serenity, her only child. She had been the only person Erica Mae Butts confided in after she was raped at age 15.
“I was responsible for some things, but I would never kill her,” Erica Mae Butts said, according to the Post and Courier. Then, practically screaming through her sobs, she turned to Ieshia and said:
“I will always love you no matter what. I just want to tell you I’m so, so sorry.”
During the hearing, Shanita Latrice Cunningham’s attorney said her client was less culpable than Erica Mae Butts in little girl’s death.
Erica Mae Butts’ attorney instead portrayed Shanita Latrice Cunningham as the “controlling and aggressive” partner in an abusive relationship, while describing Butts as a “meek” woman, the Post and Courier reported.
Sentencing the killers, Judge Richardson said: “To ignore what must have been excruciating sounds that came from that child is more than disconcerting to this court.
“As such, the court finds it appropriate that each be sentenced to the state department of corrections for a period of life.”