Family members and 911 callers testified as the trial began Wednesday for a former UNC student involved a fiery wrong-way, DWI crash that killed three people in Orange County last year.
A jury will decide whether Chandler Kania, 21, of Asheboro, is guilty of three felony charges of second-degree murder and one misdemeanor charge of reckless driving in the July 19, 2015, fatal wreck on Interstate 85/40, just west of Hillsborough.
Darlene McGee, Felecia Harris and Harris’ granddaughter Jahnice Beard, 6, were killed. Harris’ daughter Jahnia King, now 11, survived the crash but suffered broken bones and other injuries, Assistant District Attorney Jeff Neiman said. Kania, who was pinned in his Jeep, had two broken ankles and a broken arm.
While both sides agreed on the details of the case, the prosecution must prove Kania acted with malice. Nieman asked the jury to look for what’s “above and beyond driving while impaired.”
“You will hear that while there were people who are tending to the 9-year-old girl on the ground, wailing in pain, her mother, her mother’s best friend and her niece dead in the car, that this man wouldn’t stop honking his horn, cursing at the first responders, telling them to hurry up and help him,” Nieman said.
Kania pleaded guilty Monday to several other charges, including three counts of felony death by motor vehicle, felony causing serious injury by motor vehicle and driving while impaired, defense attorney Roger Smith told the jury.
Night of drinking
Nieman said Kania and two friends from Asheboro consumed “multiple substances” at a Wilmington concert on July 17, 2015, and traveled to Chapel Hill, where they met Kania’s friends and fraternity brothers on July 18.
A 21-year-old friend bought a case of Budweiser for a party that night and an 18-pack of Coors beer, Smith said. The group drank beer and shots of liquor through the evening – during the party at Shortbread Lofts in Chapel Hill and two local bars, La Residence and He’s Not Here.
Kania and his underage friends used fake driver’s licenses to get in both bars and buy alcohol, Smith said.
We come together in the calm of this courtroom to determine what actually happened and whether Chandler Kania is guilty of murder.
Defense attorney Roger Smith
Around 2 a.m., Kania and a friend started arguing about two girls while walking to the fraternity, the attorneys said. Kania’s friends tried to stop him from driving away, but he left, they said; several 911 callers testified to seeing him around 3 a.m.
Antwan Russell said a car passed him on the wrong side of the highway. His girlfriend Jessica Lands, who called 911, said they reached the wreck as it happened.
“We saw the collision before I could get my phone (to call 911),” Lands said. “A big ball of fire went up in the air, and then it just went black.”
Truck driver Antoan Kennedy swerved to avoid hitting the vehicles and ran to help. The girl was struggling to get out and he tried to keep her calm, he said; the driver was already dead. He didn’t see the others.
McGee had been friends with Harris for years, her daughter Deseante Jones said tearfully. She last spoke to her mother a few days earlier, she said.
The group was returning to Charlotte from an annual family memorial for her grandmother in Virginia, Jones said. They had the urn holding her grandmother’s ashes with them.
“It was scattered on the pavement,” Jones said, sobbing.
Jahnice Beard’s mother, Shanice Beard, and father, Jahmonie Smith, learned in separate calls from family that their daughter and Smith’s mother, Harris, had died. Smith, whose sister Jahniah survived, said he hung up at first, not believing what he had heard.
“I just broke down,” Beard said quietly, remembering how her daughter had just graduated from kindergarten.
Anger and sadness
Kania watched the daylong proceedings closely, taking notes, but hung his head when family members testified. His mother, sitting a few rows behind, cried and leaned into her husband’s arm throughout the day.
Authorities reported Kania’s blood-alcohol level was 0.17 – twice the state’s legal definition of impairment of 0.08 – and he tested positive for marijuana. He initially presented a fake driver’s license to an N.C. Highway Patrol trooper who approached him after the crash, Nieman said.
Chandler, after the wreck, “had a very strong odor of alcohol, (the trooper) noticed the beer cans that were strewn around the median, and he made note – he wrote it down – that Chandler was unaware of where he even was,” Smith said..”
It is human to feel anger and sadness, Smith said.
“We come together in the calm of this courtroom to determine what actually happened and whether Chandler Kania is guilty of murder,” he said. “And in order to do that ... (the nation’s laws and traditions) demand that we rise above the sadness, that we rise above the anger, and that you reach a decision based on an honest, a fair and reasonable assessment of the evidence that is produced in this courtroom.”
The case will continue Thursday morning.