Sappenfield found not guilty

Jul. 24, 2014 @ 08:21 AM

C.J. Sappenfield, 21, of Bostic was found not guilty of felony death by motor vehicle and careless and reckless driving Wednesday afternoon in Rutherford County Superior Court.

He was charged in the vehicle crash on May 15, 2013 that claimed the life of his best friend, Matthew Lail, 19, of Forest City.

The seven men, five women jury deliberated approximately 40 minutes before reaching the verdict at 3:49 p.m. 

When the verdict was announced, many of Sappenfield's family and friends sighed and began to cry. His mother, Patty Sappenfield,  leaned her head on the shoulder of Sappenfield's twin brother, Lucas, and cried.

Lail's mother, Carol Womick sat still during the verdict announcement. Accompanied by her husband, Womick walked out of the courtroom without speaking, appearing devastated. 

Sappenfield nor his defense attorney, Jarald Willis, had any comments.

District Attorney Brad Greenway said, "the jury has spoken."

He said the defense's expert witness, Johnny Hennings of Accident Reconstruction Analysis, Inc. of Raleigh, probably put doubt in the minds of the jurors. 

Hennings was on the stand for nearly two days, testifying of his reconstruction of the fatal wreck scene that included scientific, mathematical and forensic information.

Sappenfield's family, his parents, aunts, uncle, grandparents and friends left the courtroom together, some hand-in-hand and walked the short distance to Willis' office from the courthouse. 

The Western North Carolina director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was in the courtroom most of the trial.

"What brought us all here today is the issue of underage drinking," Pitt said. "Someone actively or passively provided Mr. Sappenfield and Mr. Lail with alcohol.

“That person, or persons, will have to live with the aftermath of that careless decision.”

Both youths were drinking before the crash and both had alcohol blood levels far exceeding the legal limit in North Carolina.

During the testimonies, witnesses said they had no idea where the underage drinkers got the alcohol.

"Mahatma Gandhi said that 'there's a higher court that super-cedes all others, the court of conscience.' I hope that the next person who thinks of giving alcohol to minors will think of Carol Womick and of the needless tragedy that happened in your county in May 2013,”

Pitt said. "If anything is taken away from this today, it is a new awareness of the consequences of underage drinking. Not the court's consequences, but the physical human, gut wrenching emotional consequences."

Testimony began on Tuesday, July 15 after jury selection was conducted on Monday.

The trial was predicted to last four days, but as witness testimony was drawn out into Friday, Superior Court had to be held over into this week.

Sappenfield did not take the witness stand in his own defense and Superior Court Judge Jeff Hunt informed the jury that his decision not to testify could not have any bearing on the jury's decision.

The defense contended Sappenfield has no memory of the crash that occurred off Bostic-Sunshine Highway, just minutes from the Sappenfield residence. 

Willis told the court, the operator of the vehicle could not be determined even with testimony from Hennings. 

The State contended, through evidence and testimony gathered from the North Carolina Highway Patrol the night of the crash, Sappenfield was driving his own car the night it ran off the road at 80 mph and crashed into the lawns of residences.

Lail and Sappenfield were ejected from Sappenfield's Honda. Lail died at the scene and Sappenfield sustained a broken leg. He was airlifted to Spartanburg Regional Medical Center where he remained six days.

He was unconscious at the scene and didn't regain consciousness until 16 hours after the car crash. 


Closing arguments

Defense attorney Willis began his closing arguments when court resumed at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. He argued his case for two hours, telling the jury the one question that needed to be answered was, “who was driving Sappenfield's 1998 Honda Accord the night of the crash?"

"Sometimes we have to accept the fact that the answer is not available … there is no reliable knowledge as to who was operating the vehicle," Willis said.

There were no eye witnesses at the scene and the survivor has no memory of what happened, Willis told the jury.

Willis said the case would come down to the "battle of the experts" in determining what happened the morning of May 15, 2013.

Days of expert testimony was presented by Hennings and North Carolina Highway Patrolmen (NCHP).

NCHP Sgt. Kevin Owens and North Carolina Highway Patrolman Baxter Hill, testified for hours regarding the "complex roll-over" of the vehicle and how the evidence gathered at the scene proved Sappenfield was the driver.

But Willis asked the jurors, "If Hennings had not gotten on stand, there still would reasonable doubt" regarding the driver of the car.

Willis asked the jurors, "Have they entirely convinced you as to who was operating the vehicle? If you are going to put a person in prison, you better get your ducks in a row."

Willis asked the jury if they believed the State had met the burden of proof in the case.

Willis concluded, "If you return a verdict of not guilty, no body will go skipping out of this courtroom."

Greenway, who argued for approximately 90 minutes, said the identity of the person driving the car was the key issue in the case.

When the Honda left the roadway, it went airborne, rolled several times and hit the ground on more than one occasion before it came to a rest.

Throughout the trial and during closing arguments, there was lengthy testimony as to where and how the car came to a rest, how Lail and Sappenfield were thrown from the vehicle during the sequence of roll-overs.

Greenway said based on the evidence presented by the highway patrol, it was determined Sappenfield was driving his car. 

As Greenway closed his arguments, he told the jury they had an opportunity to show teenagers and adults in Rutherford County, they were not going to stand for people driving drunk on the highways of the county.

He told the jury the State has presented sufficient evidence to prove Sappenfield was driving the car the night Lail died.