Family members of a Baker University student killed in a wreck on U.S. Highway 56 sobbed and shook their heads Thursday in court as jurors found a truck driver not guilty of manslaughter.
"It just feels like somebody has taken his hand and just ripped your heart right out of you," said Matt Trager, father of 19-year-old Shawn M. Trager, who was killed in the April 13 wreck east of Baldwin.
Jurors deliberated about five hours before finding truck driver Yan R. McHenry, 47, Dallas, not guilty of involuntary manslaughter while driving under the influence and reckless involuntary manslaughter, both felonies.
They found him guilty of the lesser charge of vehicular homicide, a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year in jail, but not guilty of aggravated battery of three people injured in the wreck.
Prosecutors alleged McHenry was under the influence of cocaine when he rear-ended a car in which Trager was riding, pushing it into oncoming traffic.
McHenry tested positive for cocaine after the accident, and did poorly on a field sobriety test, according to testimony. A Kansas Highway Patrol trooper also testified McHenry admitted using cocaine the day before.
But two jurors said afterward there wasn't enough evidence to convince them McHenry was under the influence at the time of the crash. McHenry's blood sample contained only byproducts of cocaine produced as the body breaks down the drug, not the actual drug.
Jurors also could have found McHenry guilty of involuntary manslaughter if they'd found he killed Trager "recklessly." But under state law, someone is reckless only if he or she knows there is imminent danger to another person and consciously disregards it.
Two other Douglas County cases this year stemming from fatal wrecks had a similar outcome:
- Jurors in February found Michael J. Roberts, 35, St. Louis, not guilty of involuntary manslaughter while driving under the influence and reckless involuntary manslaughter.
The wreck, which killed an 11-year-old girl in Roberts' car, happened in July 2002 on Interstate 70 when he fell asleep at the wheel. A prosecutor said Roberts had been smoking marijuana as he drove home from Denver.
- A judge in February found 20-year-old Charley Davis not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 31-year-old Tisha Downing. Davis had been passing in a no-passing zone on U.S. Highway 40, but Judge Robert Fairchild found his actions didn't fit the legal definition of "recklessness."
Both Davis and Roberts were convicted of vehicular homicide, which essentially means causing a traffic death by not using proper caution.
McHenry will be sentenced Nov. 22.
"Mr. McHenry is so sorry this happened. This was an accident," said his fiancee, Carol Casey, of Lawrence, who met McHenry at the jail after being asked by a friend to relay messages between him and his family in Texas.
McHenry is on parole in Texas for a cocaine-distribution charge. Trager's family members said they hoped he would be sent back to prison in Texas because of the wreck.
Casey said McHenry had four children, didn't use drugs and denied telling the trooper he'd used cocaine the day before.
"He's a very solid person. He's a very religious person," she said.