CLAYTON • The Alabama trucker who killed three people on Highway 40 after reaching for his cell phone and plowing into traffic two summers ago walked out of jail a free man Friday.
Jeffrey Knight, 51, was released from the St. Louis County Justice Center about 7:30 a.m. Friday after pleading guilty Thursday on three counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Knight's sentence: One year in jail. Knight was freed because the judge gave him credit for time he had already served in jail — 371 days.
"I'm glad Mr. Knight is able to go home to his wife and resume his life," said Knight's attorney, Michelle Burriel, an assistant public defender.
Knight could not be reached for comment Friday.
In court, Burriel said Knight turned to address the family members of some of his victims and cried as he apologized, telling them it was a tragedy that he thinks about every day.
St. Louis County Circuit Judge Mark Seigel sentenced Knight to one year in jail for each of the three deaths — but overlapped the sentences to run concurrently.
Police say Knight was distracted by reaching for a cell phone when his tractor-trailer piled into vehicles on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) near Interstate 270 on July 15, 2008.
The crash killed two members of an Amish family from northeastern Missouri who were bound for a funeral in Tennessee when the accident happened. Lydia Miller, 55, of Canton, Mo., died in the crash. Alvin Mast, 88, of Kahoka, Mo., died two days later.
Charles "Keith" Cason, 55, a copier salesman from Caseyville, also was killed. Four relatives of Cason's attended the sentencing. The Amish relatives were notified but chose not to attend.
Knight was charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter in the crash, which also injured 14 people. The charges were not filed until April 2009, nine months after the massive crash that happened just as rush hour was beginning about 3:45 p.m.
A Missouri Highway Patrol report said Knight admitted he was distracted by a cell phone. The report quoted Knight: "I reached across the dash to get my cell phone. I flipped the phone open, looked back at traffic, and I was there right at the last car (in the line of cars stuck in traffic). I didn't see any brake lights or emergency flashers. After I hit the first car, I just remember holding the steering wheel and seeing cars going to my left and right."
The day after the crash, the patrol said Knight had a clean driving record and that neither drugs nor alcohol appeared to have been involved.
In letters filed in court, Knight indicates that heat stress was a factor. He said he had been driving for days in a truck without air conditioning.
"I feel, and think that the cumulative effects of prolonged exposure to the heat affected my judgment!" Knight said in one letter found in the court file.
Knight is from Muscle Shoals., Ala. His lawyer, Burriel, said Knight planned to return to Alabama and discuss with his wife what kind of job he might pursue next.
Burriel indicated that trucking wasn't really an option. "I would be very surprised if any insurance company would insure him as a commercial truck driver," she said.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said the one-year sentence was appropriate and was a recommendation made many months ago after his office consulted with the victims' families.
"Whether he was reaching for a cell phone, looking for something else, or who knows what, he wasn't looking at traffic, which was backed up a good distance," McCulloch said. "It was inattention all the way."
One of the people badly hurt in the crash, Mark Tiburzi of St. Peters, and his wife were awarded $18 million total from the driver and his company. The crash left Tiburzi under constant care in a nursing home, unable to walk or talk, according to his lawyer and court filings.
Tiburzi's wife, Cheri, said Friday that she was unaware Knight pleaded guilty. The last she heard, his trial was scheduled for this summer. "I don't even know what to think," Cheri Tiburzi said of the sentence.