Chapel Hill News

Closing arguments heard in triple-fatal Orange County DWI trial

From left defense attorneys James Rainsford, Roger Smith, Jr. defendant Chandler M. Kania, and defense attorney Wade Smith stand briefly before leaving Orange Superior Court on October 5.
From left defense attorneys James Rainsford, Roger Smith, Jr. defendant Chandler M. Kania, and defense attorney Wade Smith stand briefly before leaving Orange Superior Court on October 5.

Attorneys for a former UNC student declined to call witnesses Thursday in his triple-fatal DWI trial in Orange County.

Defense attorneys and prosecutor Jeff Nieman spent the morning and early afternoon making their closing arguments to the jury, which heard 35 witnesses for the prosecution in the last six days.

Kania, 21, of Asheboro, is accused of driving his Jeep the wrong way on Interstate 85/40 on July 19, 2015, before crashing into a Suzuki outside Hillsborough just after 3 a.m.

This is not a drunk-driving case, Nieman told the jury. This is a driving while angry case fueled by alcohol, he said.

“This is not a question for you to decide this man’s heart,” Nieman said. “Pay close attention to the jury instructions. At no point are you asked to be (put) in a position of moral judgment. You need only decide if his actions that night evidenced malice.”

Kania’s friends have testified that Kania was smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol in Wilmington, and at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, a party and two Chapel Hill bars on July 17 and July 18. They also testified that he got into an argument with a friend over their relationships with two girls about an hour before the wreck.

Three passengers in the Suzuki – Darlene McGee, Felecia Harris and Harris’ granddaughter Jahnice Beard, 6 – were killed in the head-on crash. Harris’ young daughter, Jahnia King, now 11, was seriously injured.

Kania, who was pinned in the Jeep, suffered two broken ankles and a broken arm. Authorities have said his blood-alcohol level was 0.17 – more than twice the state’s legal threshold for impairment – and he tested positive for marijuana.

The jury must decide if Kania, 21, of Asheboro, is guilty of three felony second-degree murder charges and one misdemeanor reckless driving charge. The prosecution must prove Kania acted with malice to prove he is guilty of second-degree murder.

The key question, Nieman said, is whether Kania’s behavior that night exhibited malice. It doesn’t mean he was a wicked person, but that the act of driving that night was intentional and posed a danger to human life and were reckless and wanton, Nieman said.

Kania’s friends tried to stop him from leaving the fraternity parking lot, he said, but Kania left and came back before leaving again. That fact shows he clearly intended to operate his vehicle, Nieman said.

Kania already has pleaded guilty to several charges, including three counts of felony death by motor vehicle, felony causing serious injury and driving while impaired, defense attorneys Wade Smith and Roger Smith Jr. said.

The jury must find Kania guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, Wade Smith said. If there’s doubt, he said, “you take that doubt and you forthrightly, wholeheartedly look at it and say is that sensible, is that based on common sense.”

Kania will be punished for drinking that night and then driving drunk, killing three people, he said, but there was no malice in his heart.

“He was a dumb, stupid, 20 year old kid,” Wade Smith said, but he was not wicked and depraved when he drove that night.

He looked at the families of the victims, including Jahnia King, who were sitting in the courtroom, before looking at Kania and his family, seated behind him. No one’s life will ever be the same again, he said.

“We acknowledge to the good people who lost their loved ones, who are here this morning ... that saying he’s sorry is not enough,” Wade Smith said.

The judge is expected to give the case to the jury this afternoon.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb