After two days of deliberation, a jury found former UNC student Chandler Kania guilty of three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of reckless driving Monday.
Kania was sentenced to a minimum of 12 years and 8 months and a maximum of 16 years and 4 months in prison by Judge Henry Hight Jr.
Kania, now 21, had been charged with second-degree murder after a July 19, 2015 wrong-way drunken driving crash that left three people dead and one person seriously injured. Darlene McGee, 46, Felecia Harris, 49, and 6-year-old Jahnice Beard died in the crash while Jahnia King, now 11, was critically injured.
The jury did not find that Kania acted with malice, which was necessary for the second-degree murder charge.
Kania previously pleaded guilty to DWI, three counts of felony death by motor vehicle and several lesser charges.
After Kania's conviction, the prosecution and defense both presented witnesses before Hight delivered the sentencing.
Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman called several of the victims’ family members to the stand.
Jahnicia Smith, daughter of Felecia Harris, said she first learned of the crash during a call with her brother.
Smith said her mother’s absence has left her without a person to go to for support or comfort.
“I don’t have that person anymore,” Smith said. “So, it’s kind of like just trying to figure out who I am now without my mom being there. “
King, the only survivor of the crash besides Kania, took the stand for the first time in front of a packed courtroom.
Nine years old at the time of the crash, she said she had no recollection of the incident until she woke up at the hospital the the next morning to a room full of family members. Her mother was notably absent.
King said she was sad at the time of the crash, but now she is angry.
“My mom was the best person I ever met in my life,” King said.
Nieman asked that Kania be given the maximum sentence, which he called the only appropriate punishment. He said during his 10-year career, he has only requested this a handful of times.
“The council seems intent on referring to him as a boy or as a kid. Jahnia King was a kid. Jahnice Beard was a kid. That’s a man,” Nieman said, pointing to Kania.
Kania’s attorney, Roger Smith Jr., spoke about Kania’s academic, church and community service involvements and his remorse, noting he had no criminal record before the crash.
The defense then called five witnesses to the stand, including Mark Hall, associate pastor of youth and adult education at First Baptist Church in Asheboro.
“He got away from his spiritual foundation,” Hall said. “It could happen to any of us if we were in the same environment as Chandler."
The defense also called on Bruce Murakami, the founder of Safe Teen Driver Inc., a program meant to bring awareness to teens about the consequences of unsafe driving.
Murakami, a contractor from Tampa, Florida, had been contacted by Michael Kania, Chandler's father, after he heard about the program. Murakami said Michael Kania wanted to start a similar program in his hometown.
Murakami started the Safe Teen Driver program in 2003 after his wife and daughter were killed by a teenager who was illegally street racing.
“When I walked into the courtroom, I realized he was not a bad kid,” Murakami said when he first saw the teen charged in the deaths of his family members.
The driver was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison. When Murakami started the program, he asked the driver to come with him to local high schools in Tampa and talk to the students. Murakami would start, then he would introduce the man who killed his family.
Murakami said the program brought him peace and helped get the message out to thousands of high school students about the dangers and consequences of reckless driving.
After all of the defense's character witnesses testified, Kania made a statement of his own.
"I am sorry for my actions that fateful night in July of last year,” Kania began. “I don’t remember this night in its entirety but its ramifications I do endure every moment of my life.”
Kania paused multiple times to wipe tears away.
“As a direct result of my behavior, three lives were lost. Three innocent people are dead because of me,” Kania said. “I take full responsibility for my actions. I wish it were me, the drunk driver, that had suffered all the consequences.”
After Kania read his prepared statement, Hight spoke before handing down his sentence.
“Despite his friends' efforts, this young man drove drunk and killed three people,” Hight said. “Stupid has a high price.”
Hight said he hoped Kania would be an example of drunken driving's disastrous consequences.
“I hope this trial will force parents to talk to their kids about drunk driving.”
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