Friends testify to day of drinking, smoking pot before fatal I-85 crash
Posted October 6, 2016
Hillsborough, N.C. — Friends of a former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student involved in a wrong-way collision on Interstate 85 last year that killed three people testified Thursday that the student had been drinking and smoking marijuana throughout the day and night before the crash.
Chandler Michael Kania, 21, of Asheboro, is on trial on three counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Felecia Harris, 49, her friend Darlene McGee, 46, both of Charlotte, and Harris' granddaughter, Jahnice Beard, 6, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Kania was headed north in the southbound lanes of I-85 near the Interstate 40 split in Orange County on July 19, 2015, when his Jeep Wrangler collided head on with Harris' Suzuki sedan. Harris' daughter, Jahnia King, 9, survived the wreck but was seriously injured.
Kania pleaded guilty Monday to three counts of felony death by motor vehicle and one count each of felony serious injury by motor vehicle, driving while impaired, driving the wrong way on an interstate, driving after consuming alcohol as a minor, possession of alcohol by a minor and having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle.
Alex Pugh, a UNC-Wilmington student who was a friend of Kania's from high school, testified that Kania and a third friend from Asheboro were visiting him on July 17-18, 2015, and the trio smoked marijuana before an after spending the afternoon at the beach. They then drove to Chapel Hill, where Pugh bought two cases of beer that the trio drank through the night, he said.
Kania drove his friends from one stop to another in Chapel Hill, including his fraternity house, where they also smoked more marijuana, Pugh said.
Rebecca Greene, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior, said Kania and his friends dropped a case of beer off at her apartment on the evening of July 18, 2015, before a planned "pre-game" drinking gathering later that night. After the gathering, everyone left to visit bars in Chapel Hill, including La Residence and He's Not Here, she said.
Authorities said Kania borrowed a driver's license from a fraternity brother to get into the two bars in the hours before the crash, and the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission last fall fined both bars for allowing underage drinking.
Greene said she also used a fake ID that night, noting a group of friends ordered them in bulk online.
To convict Kania of second-degree murder, prosecutors must show he displayed malice, and defense attorney Roger Smith Jr. tried to undercut that effort by indicting the culture of drinking on college campuses.
"He's accused of doing this maliciously, but what we do have there is a culture," Smith told Superior Court Judge Henry Hight outside the presence of the jury. "You've got somebody who's 18 years old, and they leave home and they come to UNC, and they go through fraternity rush, and the first thing they do is they're served alcohol at all of these parties. It's part of the culture there. Are we talking about malice? Or are we talking about young kids after they've left home and they're sitting here and taught how to drink?"
Hight limited Smith's ability to inquire about drinking at UNC outside of the night before the crash.
Pugh and Josh Hall, another friend of Kania's from Asheboro, said Kania got into an argument with a fraternity brother after the group left He's Not Here, although they weren't sure what it was about. Kania then went to his Jeep, and Pugh said he and another fraternity brother tried to stop him from driving off.
"Why was that concerning to you?" Orange County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman asked.
"Because he's been drinking," Pugh said.
Kania knocked the fraternity brother to the ground, but he was able to get back up and grab Kania's cellphone from his lap in the driver's seat, Pugh said. He said he tried to get the keys, but Kania blocked his arm, started up the Jeep and drove off.
Hall's testimony is expected to continue Friday morning.
During an afternoon break, Hight dismissed one of the jurors who was sleeping through part of the testimony, leaving the jury with only one alternate.