Former UNC student Chandler Kania was convicted Oct. 17 of three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of reckless driving.
Authorities said Kania was driving drunk on the wrong side of I-85 when he crashed into another car, killing three people and injuring the fourth. Darlene McGee, 46, Felicia Harris, 49, and six-year-old Jahnice Beard died in the crash.
More than a year since the July 19, 2015, crash, the conviction came after six days of testimony and two days of jury deliberation. Ultimately, the jury decided not to convict Kania on second degree murder, which requires the element of malice.
Prior to jury selection, Kania pleaded guilty to three counts of felony death by vehicle and one count each of driving while under the influence, driving with an open container, driving after consumption of alcohol under the age of 21, purchasing alcohol under the age of 21, consuming alcohol under the age of 21 and driving the wrong way on a two-lane highway.
Judge Henry W. Hight Jr. sentenced Kania to 12 years and eight months minimum to 16 years and 4 months maximum in prison.
The trial was emotional for both Kania and the victim’s families.
To convict Kania of second-degree murder, the prosecution needed to prove that Kania acted with malice.
The defense began by arguing there was no malice involved. Rather, there was the cultural influence of Kania's surroundings — a college and fraternity environment that encourages drinking.
The jury heard testimony from five of Kania’s friends who were with him the night of the crash. Case Aldridge, Kania’s best friend and Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity brother, testified that Kania went to a pregame party at his friend Rebecca Greene’s apartment that night. Kania later met Aldridge and his friends Joshua Hall, Joseph Lopez, Aditya Shah and Alex Pugh at two Chapel Hill bars – La Residence and He’s Not Here.
Following a verbal altercation with Aldridge, Kania returned to his car parked at Sigma Phi Epsilon. Shah said he went back to the Sigma Phi Epsilon house to prevent Kania from getting in his car, but was unsuccessful.
“I’m running and yelling ‘Chandler, stop,'” Shah said in his testimony.
Kania tackled Shah to the ground, where Shah said he was disoriented for five to six seconds. Then, Kania drove off in his car and came back to the house soon after, where Shah managed to get Kania’s phone. Kania drove off for the second time.
Following Kania's friends' testimonies, the jury heard from state troopers, firefighters, a paramedic and a forensic scientist.
Capt. Joel Massey of the Orange Rural Fire Department said that upon arriving at the scene, he went to help the surviving victim, nine-year-old Jahnia King, who was hanging partly outside the front passenger window. He checked the pulses of the other three victims and found none. Kania was conscious.
“The driver was intentionally blowing his horn and yelling at us,” he said in October. “He kept yelling, ‘Is someone going to fucking help me?’”
Kania consented to a blood sample in the ambulance. His blood alcohol content was .17. Marijuana was also found in his blood sample.
Two videos were shown by the prosecution. The first depicted Kania warning about the dangers of texting and driving in a video he made in high school.
The second video and accompanying audio clip came from a dashboard camera and a microphone clipped to the belt of Deputy Chris Bentley of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the first responder to the crash.
Roger Smith Jr., one of Kania's attorneys, described the audio clip as gut-wrenching. The clip included King's screams for help and the honking of Kania's horn.
On the sixth day of testimony, the prosecution concluded its witness testimony and Kania declined to take the stand.
The jury did not convict the former UNC student on second degree murder charges because they did not find he exhibited malice on the night of the crash. They also concluded there was no aggravating factor in the case, which meant the maximum sentence the judge could give was 17 to 21 years.
After the conviction, but before sentencing, members of the victims' families took the stand.
Jahnicia Smith, daughter of Felicia Harris, said the death of her mother left her without someone to go to for support.
King, now 11 and the only surviving victim of the crash, said she was sad at first, but is now angry.
“My mom was the best person I ever met in my life,” she said.
Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman asked for maximum sentencing, and said he has only asked for this a handful of times. He called it the only appropriate punishment.
The defense called five character witnesses to the stand including Mark Hall, associate pastor of youth and adult education at First Baptist Church in Asheboro, who advocated that Kania got away from his spiritual foundation because of his environment.
Kania made a tearful statement.
"I am sorry for my actions that fateful night in July of last year,” Kania said before sentencing. “I don’t remember this night in its entirety, but its ramifications I do endure every moment of my life.”
Before sentencing, Hight said he hoped Kania's actions would be an example of the terrible consequences of drunk driving.
“Despite his friends' efforts, this young man drove drunk and killed three people,” Hight said. “Stupid has a high price.”
After the trial
While disappointed by the jury’s failure to convict Kania on second-degree murder, Nieman said he respected their decision.
“For a second-degree murder case, I’m not aware of a case where the behavior exhibited on the date of offense showed malice more than this case,” Nieman said in October. “But that’s just my opinion. The jury’s opinion is the one that matters in the end.”
Nieman said another definition of malice, besides having ill will toward a particular person, is when someone intentionally engages in conduct they know is likely to cause serious injury or death and ignores that danger. He said this type of malice could have been exhibited in Kania’s case.
Felony classes are ranked in descending order beginning with A. Kania pleaded guilty to a variety of criminal charges, including felony death by vehicle, a Class D felony. Therefore, the jury’s conviction of involuntary manslaughter, a Class F felony, had little to no effect on the sentencing.
After Kania's sentencing, Jahmonie Smith, father of Jahnice Beard — the six-year-old girl who died in the crash — said he didn’t feel that Kania got enough time for what he did.
“My daughter’s six years old," he said in October. "She ain’t get to live her life and he did and he took that from her.”
After sentencing, Smith spoke about the heaviness that weighed on both families despite the conclusion of the trial.
“This is not about a victory in court,” he said in October. “This will always be about the tragedy that happened on July 19 and for the families that were affected.”
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