RACINE — Silence lay thick Friday as a judge looked across the courtroom at a Racine man he was about to sentence for what he called a “brutal, savage” and prolonged attack that claimed the life of a toddler.
Andre O. Knighton body-slammed 2-year-old Donnasia Jackson to the floor approximately 12 to 15 times on Oct. 19, 2011, while watching her. The Racine toddler died the next day, from extensive head and abdominal injuries.
“This was a horrific offense. It is difficult to read, and listen to, and discuss what was done to this child,” Racine County Circuit Judge Wayne Marik said during Friday’s sentencing hearing. “There must have been a protracted and brutal course of conduct here. Sadly, she must have suffered.”
Autopsy results showed that the toddler suffered from a skull fracture, which extended down the back of her head to her spinal cord. Donnasia’s brain had turned to a jelly-like consistency because of “significant injuries” to her head, autopsy results showed.
The child had a tear in her liver and her pancreas was split in two.
Donnasia was a vulnerable victim — “a defenseless 2-year-old,” Marik told Knighton before sentencing him to 30 years in prison and another 20 years on extended supervision.
Knighton, 23, will receive credit for about 13 months already spent in jail.
He reportedly admitted to hitting Donnasia on the buttocks with his flip-flop that day — among other abuses.
These were triggered, prosecutors and police said, because Donnasia began to cry and fuss that day after soiling her pants. Knighton has said he was suffering from a migraine at the time.
“If she wet her pants, if she defecated as you claim, if she was fussy — (even if Donnasia was totally out of control) — she was simply being a 2-year-old,” Marik told Knighton. “You, as her caregiver, were to deal with her in an appropriate way.”
The abuse occurred while her mother, Knighton’s girlfriend, was at work. But the couple waited for hours before taking Donnasia to the hospital.
“I continue to pray to God and ask everyone to forgive me,” Knighton said during Friday’s hearing. “Every day I just wish I could take it back. Please find somewhere in your hearts to forgive me. I take full responsibility for my actions and there’s no justifying for what I have done.”
He pleaded no contest in July to first-degree reckless homicide. In exchange, prosecutors dropped a misdemeanor charge of physical abuse of a child.
District Attorney Rich Chiapete called for “substantial and significant” prison time for Knighton, citing the severity of abuse Donnasia suffered. He said it was “particularly brutal” and Knighton’s conduct especially egregious.
“We truly have the innocent victim — the innocent lamb,” Chiapete said as about two dozen family members and friends of the toddler and Knighton watched the proceedings.
Knighton says he doesn’t recall what happened while alone with Donnasia. He had been suffering from a migraine, he told investigators, and received medication from the hospital that day.
“I don’t think it would be a leap to believe that his mind has blocked out some of the more” tragic events, his defense attorney, Steven R. Kohn, told Marik. “Something snapped in Andre and resulted in the loss of a young life. ...No matter what you sentence him to, a life is lost. His life is forever altered.”
Kohn said Knighton had no prior criminal record when prosecutors charged him last October.
The charge is a Class B felony, punishable by a maximum of 40 years in prison and 20 years on extended supervision.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections, in its pre-sentencing investigation report, recommended a 30-year prison term for Knighton, plus 20 years on extended supervision.
Kohn said Knighton’s family wanted a 15-year term. He declined comment after the sentencing.
The 30-year prison term didn’t sit well with Donnasia’s grandmother.
“I really don’t think it’s fair,” maternal grandmother Jeanette Morris said after the sentencing. “To me it’s like a slap on the wrist. You took a 2-year-old, defenseless child’s life. He should have gotten more (prison time).”
Morris, 45, of Racine, left the sentencing hearing in tears at times — in addition to the approximately 10-minute stint when the Law Enforcement Center was evacuated for a fire drill.
She said she has six children and 22 grandchildren and never resorted even to spanking them.
“If you cannot tolerate a 2-year-old’s tantrum, you should not have taken on that responsibility,” she said.
Knighton began to cry during Friday’s sentencing when Marik ordered him not to have any contact with children younger than 16, without first obtaining approval for supervised visits. Knighton fathered a child with a different woman.