Woman who killed baby in DUI crash tearfully apologizes at sentencing

Valereen Kaleohano-Knittle
Valereen Kaleohano-Knittle
Aliyah Braden
Aliyah Braden

By Minna Sugimoto - bio | email

KONA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Big Island woman who killed a one-year-old girl in a drunken driving crash in May 2009 received a 10-year prison term during an emotional sentencing Tuesday.

Valereen Kaleohano-Knittle pleaded guilty to four charges and received her sentence all in one day. Under a plea deal, prosecutors dismissed four other counts, including the most-serious charge of manslaughter.

Cradling a photo of his little girl, Wayne Braden sat in court with a heavy heart. A happy child who loved dogs and the ocean, 17-month-old Aliyah was the apple of her father's eye.

"There's thousands of girls that look just like that, beautiful, who are out there waiting to be smashed by drunks who have no consideration whatsoever," Braden said.

Valereen Kaleohano-Knittle was driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.249 -- triple the legal limit -- when her speeding truck ran a red light at the intersection of Kuakini Highway and Lako Street in Kailua-Kona, and slammed into the car that Aliyah was riding in.

The baby's mother was critically injured.

"I stand before you today with my head down in shame and with guilt for what I have taken from you," Kaleohano-Knittle said through tears. "You may never be able to forgive me. I have deprived you of your child."

The defendant pleaded guilty to first-degree negligent homicide, first-degree negligent injury, consuming or possessing intoxicating liquor while operating a motor vehicle, and inattention to driving.

Prosecutors say beer and a bottle of Jack Daniel's were found in her pickup.

"I acknowledge the devastation that I have caused in your life," Kaleohano-Knittle said. "Your continuing pain and sorrow are in my heart forever."

The 51-year-old says she no longer drinks, attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and wants to speak about her experience to schools and community groups.

"I will work tirelessly to keep drunk drivers off the road," she said through tears. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Wayne Braden then stood up and hugged his daughter's killer, bringing others in the courtroom to tears.

"What I just witnessed was one of the most extraordinary acts of compassion and contrition that I have seen," Elizabeth Strance, Circuit Court judge, said.

The judge sentenced Kaleohano-Knittle to 10 years in prison.

Now, all Aliyah's parents have left are photos, memories and her favorite blanket.

"You can't smell her anymore," Wayne Braden said while taking a sniff of her blanket. "She's gone."

Aliyah's mother recovered from a ruptured spleen, a lacerated kidney, a lacerated liver, and multiple fractures.

The amount that Kaleohano-Knittle must pay in restitution has yet to be determined. A hearing on the matter is set for January 14th.

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