HENDERSON — A jury on Thursday found Ryan Taylor guilty on all charges stemming from his involvement in the deaths of Henderson Collegiate students Elijah Brown and Kasi Thompson in a May 2018 traffic accident.
Taylor had faced two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of felony death by vehicle, along with charges of felony hit and run, driving while impaired, reckless driving to endanger and failure to reduce speed while also refusing to comply with a license restriction.
On Friday, Superior Court Judge Cindy Sturges handed down what amounted to a 32-year prison sentence for Taylor.
In her closing argument, Assistant District Attorney Stormy Ellis said Taylor’s actions on the night of the Raleigh Road accident that killed Brown and Thompson justified a guilty verdict.
“The evidence brought us from innocence to guilt,” Ellis said. “[Taylor] knew he had a [blood-alcohol content] restriction of 0.04 on his license and he continued to drive recklessly. Everything he did showed malice and no regard for human life.”
Ellis and District Attorney Mike Waters went back through all the evidence and testimonies that were presented to the jury over the past several days detailing the events leading up to the crash.
Along with the blood-alcohol restriction on Taylor’s license — half the state’s normal limit of 0.08 — Ellis noted that investigators found crushed bottles in his car and that his blood-alcohol level was 0.15 three hours after the accident.
Waters followed up by noting that Taylor had not called 911, refused to help out the injured passengers in the car and handed the responding officer an expired license rather than the one that had the BAC restriction from a 2012 impaired-driving charge in Mecklenburg County.
“The evidence shows a man deliberately bent on mischief,” Waters said. “He didn’t care regardless of the consequences. [Taylor] was under an obligation to remain at the scene of the accident, and he fled. He left because he was scared and did not want to be caught.”
Attorney Theresa Pressley represented Taylor through the trial and tried to persuade the jury in her closing argument to agree on a non-guilty verdict. She pointed out inconsistencies she observed in the investigation, such as blood found on the passenger seat, which was attributed to an injured Taylor attempting to escape his vehicle.
Pressley said prosecutors could not account for every single movement Taylor made on the night of May 5, and asked the jury to consider the concept of malice and whether or not Taylor intended to harm Brown or Thompson.
“Malice is not an easy principle to grasp,” Pressley told the jury. “How can you be entirely convinced that Ryan Taylor chose to be a monster? Saying not guilty in a courtroom can be difficult when you have the loved ones of a family staring at you, but sometimes saying not guilty is the right thing to do.”
But the jury reached its unanimous verdict just over 30 minutes after beginning its deliberations.
Ellis consoled the families of Brown and Thompson once the verdict was read, and said Taylor’s conviction in their deaths does not change the tragedy that continues to affect Vance County more than three years later.
“The devil is in the details,” Ellis said. “An accident can be avoided, but this collision was caused by malice and it took two people from this Earth. This was not an accident, this was intent.”
Waters on Friday said the sentence Sturges gave Taylor include terms of between 180 and 228 months each for the deaths of Brown and Thompson, an additional 19 to 35 months for leaving the scene of the accident and six months for driving while impaired. The sentences will run consecutively.
Emotions were prevalent throughout the closing arguments on Thursday as family and friends of Brown and Thompson patiently waited for the jury to decide the case.
Brown’s mother, Stephanie Brown, said memories from her son’s death are still fresh, but she found some form of peace with Thursday’s verdict and plans to keep doing everything possible to ensure that Elijah’s life is never forgotten.
“God worked this out through a lot of praying,” Stephanie Brown said. “The DA’s office and the Highway Patrol came together as a team and they prevailed. I’m very thankful for the verdict.”
Contact Brandon White at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 252-436-2840