Heeding a defense attorney’s request to give Aydan Matthew McKenna a chance to make amends for his fatal mistake of driving drunk and recklessly, a McLennan County jury spared McKenna from prison and granted his plea for probation.
Jurors in Waco’s 54th State District Court deliberated about three and a half hours Thursday before rejecting prosecutors’ requests for 15 years in prison and recommending 10 years of probation and a $10,000 fine for McKenna.
Judge Matt Johnson did not formally sentence McKenna on Thursday, ordering a presentence report to help him determine the length of probation and terms and conditions. The law requires the judge to place McKenna on probation in accordance with the jury verdict and to order him jailed for at least 120 days as a condition of probation, but the judge could extend that up-front jail time to 180 days.
The judge, who can put McKenna on probation for up to 10 years, will sentence him June 20. McKenna will remain free on bail until sentencing.
McKenna, 26, a barista at a downtown Waco coffee bar and a former teacher’s assistant in Oklahoma City, pleaded guilty Monday to intoxication manslaughter in the September 2015 traffic death of Jason Carl Sorley, a friend he met just five days before the deadly crash.
McKenna rejected a 15-year plea offer from prosecutors Amanda Dillon and Amanda Smith before trial. Dillon and Smith declined comment after the trial.
“I want to thank this incredibly brave jury for making the right decision today,” said McKenna’s attorney, Seth Sutton. “Sometimes, justice means allowing folks to learn from a poor decision and become a better person. Aydan had already begun that process. This verdict is confirmation of the jury’s recognition of that.”
Sutton said his deepest sympathies go out to Sorley’s family and friends, adding he hopes McKenna’s guilty plea and conviction provides some “closure where closure is needed.”
Sutton said he knows McKenna will make the most of this opportunity “and our community will be better for it.”
Testimony showed McKenna had a blood-alcohol level of almost twice the legal limit and was driving 108 mph just before he sailed through the intersection of China Spring Highway and Wortham Bend Road and hit a ditch. The velocity of the 2013 Scion caused it to go airborne, flipping and rolling numerous times before it came to rest in a retail center parking lot.
Sorley, 31, described by witnesses as a talented artist and a compassionate intellectual, was not wearing a seat belt and was thrown about 30 feet from the vehicle. He died about six hours later from massive blunt force injuries.
McKenna suffered two fractured vertebrae in his lower back and a ruptured spleen and was hospitalized about five days.
Dillon and Smith asked the jury to give McKenna at least 15 years in prison. He faced up to 20 years on the second-degree felony. Dillon reminded jurors that McKenna admitted during cross-examination Thursday that he bought and smoked marijuana on several occasions while he was free on bail following the fatal wreck.
“It’s so easy to look down the barrel of a 20-year gun and ask for mercy,” Dillon said. “It’s not about the marijuana. It’s about the fact this defendant knows it’s illegal, but he didn’t care. When no one is looking, that’s who he is. And even after he killed somebody, my God, can you do anything worse than kill somebody? When he is telling everyone how he has changed, how he is different and how it has affected his life. He still continues to break the laws of this state. Does that sound like someone who deserves probation?”
Sutton, who represented McKenna with Jason Milam, asked the jury to place McKenna on probation and to give him a chance to prove what a dozen witnesses told them during the trial — that McKenna has and will make a difference in the lives of so many who have come into contact with him, including students at the school in Oklahoma City, where he worked four months until January.
McKenna, a Rhode Island native, testified Thursday that he was placed in foster care for three years when he was 8 because his mother, who is bipolar and manic-depressive, could not care for him properly. He said he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a family member after he returned home before he moved to Florida to live with his grandmother.
McKenna said he and Sorley, who lived in Clifton, were at Lake Whitney that day to collect driftwood he was going to use in wedding arrangements. They drank wine and walked along the lake shore and later went to Sorley’s father’s home near Clifton.
An argument ensued with Sorley’s father, who didn’t want McKenna there because they were drinking and becoming belligerent. Bosque County deputies drove them to a friend’s house, where they were supposed to spend the night. However, they got a ride to McKenna’s car at Lake Whitney and headed back to Waco, McKenna said.
He said he doesn’t remember anything more about the 25-mile drive until first responders were pulling him out of his car at the China Spring strip mall.
In defense testimony Thursday, John Roberts, an elementary school teacher in Oklahoma City, said he worked with McKenna briefly, but in that short time, he witnessed the positive effect McKenna had on the students, their parents and other teachers.
He said McKenna took special interest in a 9-year-old boy who witnessed his mother’s murder at the hands of his stepfather. Roberts said the boy had emotional problems and was withdrawn, but somehow, McKenna “reached him.”
“He changed that kid, and I am really grateful to him. … He has a gift. He was appreciated. He is appreciated and he is still missed,” Roberts said.
He said when McKenna left and moved back to Waco, “throughout the building, there was a wave of sadness.” Children from the sixth grade to preschool cried and were sorry to see him go, Roberts said.
Reita Hill, executive director of the Central Texas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, attended the trial and said she is disappointed by the jury verdict. She agrees with the prosecutors that 15 years in prison would have been more appropriate.
“I am disappointed that the community thinks loud and clear that it is OK to drink and drive,” Hill said. “Whenever a life is taken, there is no responsibility in a verdict like this. My heart is broken for the father. We must hold people accountable whenever they commit this crime.”