Senior Lee Royster will face a felony charge related to the car accident that killed classmate Matthew Grape Sept. 15.
The Durham County grand jury indicted Royster Monday on the charge of felony death by vehicle, said Candy Clark, administrative assistant at the Durham County District Attorney’s office. Royster is tentatively scheduled to appear before a judge the week of Dec. 5, though the final court calendar has not been issued.
Assistant District Attorney Kyle Pousson, Law ’08, is the prosecutor in the case. Pousson declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Under North Carolina law, felony death by vehicle—a Class E felony—is an impaired driver unintentionally causing the death of another person when impairment is deemed to be the proximate cause of death.
According to North Carolina sentencing guidelines, a person guilty of a Class E felony without a prior record could serve 15 to 31 months in prison or under supervised probation among other conditions, such as house arrest.
Durham attorney Bill Thomas is Royster’s attorney in the case. Thomas confirmed the indictment and noted that it has not yet been served. A court date is contingent upon service of the indictment.
“We are making arrangements for [service of the indictment] at this time,” Thomas said. “Service of an indictment may or may not include an arrest.”
The car accident occurred near the intersection of Academy Road and Duke University Road at 2:40 a.m. Sept. 14, according to a DPD incident report. Royster, the driver of the car, was charged with driving while impaired following the accident.
The DWI charge was dismissed Oct. 5, citing the reason “for inclusion on future indictment,” according to the court document signed by Pousson.
Thomas added that the felony charge will be evaluated under the case management process.
Case management procedures recommend that Class E felonies be plead out or tried within 12 months of the indictment, though the timeframe is variable depending on the circumstances of the case, Clark said.
In these types of cases, the prosecution has to gather further information following the initial indictment, said Durham attorney Bob Ekstrand, a former professor at the School of Law and Law ’98. Ekstrand, who is not involved in Royster’s case, specializes in criminal defense.
Proof of impairment may be the most critical piece of evidence in cases like these, though other facts and circumstances surrounding the incident can significantly alter the outcome of the case, Ekstrand.
Royster’s blood alcohol concentration at the time of the accident is not yet known, DPD public information officer Kammie Michael wrote in an email Tuesday.
“It is important to resist the impulse to draw conclusions without the facts and fill in the factual gaps that always exist simply because a charge was filed,” Ekstrand said. “The point of a charge is to put a person on notice... but they are presumed innocent.”
Royster is still enrolled as a student, Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek said. The administration generally handles felony charges against students on a case-by-case basis.
Wasiolek added that the Office of Student Affairs remains dedicated to addressing the consequences of alcohol use.
“We have and will continue to provide educational opportunities for students to learn how to best avoid the negative consequences associated with alcohol,” Wasiolek said. “We are highly committed to a harm-reduction approach.”
The night of the accident, Royster was driving south on Academy Road in a Chevrolet Equinox with Grape riding in the passenger seat, according to the DPD incident report. The vehicle was traveling at 65 mph in a 35 mph zone before veering into the opposite lane and going off the road.
Grape was pronounced dead at the scene, according to a report by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Grape’s probable cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. He was wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. It is uncertain whether Grape had been drinking that night.
Royster was taken to Duke University Hospital for treatment of injuries before being released later that morning.
Correction: The car crash in question occurred Sept. 15 at 2:40 a.m. not Sept. 14, as a previous version of this article stated. The Chronicle regrets the error