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DRIVER IN FATAL CRASH SENT TO PRISON

The driver responsible for a head-on crash that killed a 17-year-old high school student 15 months ago is going to prison.

A Henderson County Superior Court jury on Monday convicted Matthew Schmieder, 37, of second degree murder and Superior Court Judge Julia Gullet immediately sentenced him to 16¾ years in prison, meaning he would be eligible for parole in 13 years, at age 50.

Schmieder was charged with second-degree murder in the head-on crash that killed Derek Miller, a popular senior at East Henderson High School on Dec. 22, 2016.

After the verdict but before sentencing, Derek's father, Darrell Miller, addressed the jury.

"Derek would get up every morning and tell his mother he loved her," he said, speaking haltingly and through tears. "Every afternoon when he came home from school he asked her how her day had been. And now she just stands in an empty room."

"Derek earned a diploma he didn't receive. We went on a vacation trip that would have been his. But he wasn't there. His brother didn't lose a brother, he lost a best friend. It's been hours of sadness." Financially, he said, the family would have been ruined without their friends, church and community. "I have anger. It's the first time I've ever been in court. I'm happy with the verdict and happy with the process."

When the court clerk read the verdict, Schmieder took off his glasses for a moment then put them back on. He was taken into custody after the judge sentenced him to prison.

The defense submitted letters from family members, friends and civic organizations attesting to his good character.

"I've never had this many people reach out to me ever before," defense attorney Beth Stang said.

Newman said afterwards he was pleased with the verdict. "It was a hard case, a loss of life of someone so young."

Stang, the public defender who represented Schmieder, and District Attorney Greg Newman gave their closing arguments before Judge Julia Gullet sent the jury to deliberate, at 2:40 p.m. Jurors returned an hour later, asking the judge for a copy of Schmieder's driving record and photos of the crash scene.

Defense attorney Beth Stang urged the jury to think beyond convicting or acquitting on the second murder and consider instead involuntary manslaughter or death by vehicle, two lesser charges that Judge Julia Gullet told jurors in her instructions they could consider.

In her closing arguments, Stang said she would not diminish the loss for the Miller family.

"This is a difficut case with difficult evidence. Lots of hearts were broken and you heard from one who had the biggest break and you know her," Stang said, referring to Angie Miller, Derek's mother. "No mother should have to do what she had to do that night" in identifying her son's body. "This was a bad wreck. I'm not here to ask you to think it was not terrible. But the law trumps anger, the law trumps sadness."

Stang emphasized to the jury that conviction on a second degree murder charge requires elements of intention and malice she said were not present that night.

"The wreck was clearly not intentional," she said. "Your verdict lies in the middle, involuntary manslaughter or death by vehicle."

Newman challenged Stang's argument.

"Real people make real choices with real consequences," he said. "Consequences that impact people's lives forever. Second degree murder is the unlawful killing of another human being."

Newman urged jurors to set aside the judge's characterization of Miller as "the alleged victim."

"Derek Miller, 17, was a member of this community. There is nothing alleged about it," he said.

"The defendant Matthew Schmieder should not have been driving," he went on. "His license was suspended. He knew he should not have been driving."

"There is circumstantial proof, a chain of events," he said. "Mr. Schmieder got behind the wheel and drove real fast. He knew where he was going. He intentionally drove too fast on Kanuga Road. It was pitch black outside ... There were a lot of people out and about, more than normal I would say. ... There's a pattern of behavior in his driving. He just doesn't care. And it cost him. But not anything like it cost this Miller family here. No mistake about it. This was avoidable."

Holding up for the jury a picture of Derek taken four days before his death and held up a photo of the crash scene, Newman challenged Stang's comment in her close that the jury was there to interpret the law, not to send a message.

"Verdicts do send messages. Make no mistake about that," he said. "Make the message be, 'You've got to follow the law.' Hold him accountable."

EARLIER COVERAGE:

Schmieder testified that he drank three beers with a dinner of steak and baked potato then one more when he ran into friends before he left South Rock Grill some time around 7:30 the night of Dec. 22. He told Stang that he has no memory of what happened after he pulled out of the Greenville Highway bar to head home.

“I don’t know what would put me in that much of a hurry,” he said. “I don’t know why I would think it was OK to do it. I have no idea why I would do that. I know I caused it. I know I’m wholly responsible for the accident. I’ve never been more sorry for anything. I’m just real sorry.”

Stang’s decision to put Schmieder on the stand came with some risk, given that the move allowed Newman to recount in detail the 10 speeding tickets Schmieder had gotten since he started driving at age 17 and the fact that his license was revoked when the fatal crash happened. But in the end, Newman’s questioning did not seem to draw out anything more incriminating than the jury had already heard.

Schmieder, who hobbled to the witness stand with the use of a cane, also testified that he was not impaired the night of the accident, that he "felt fine" to drive when he left the South Rock Grill. Wearing a dark suit, blue dress shirt and red tie, he answered questions as Stang guided him through his school and career history and his driving record.

He moved with his family to Hendersonville when he was a freshman, and attended Hendersonville High School. After graduating from Western Carolina University in 2004, he did odd jobs and worked at golf courses before he got his first accounting job, in 2006. He received a masters degree in accounting from WCU in 2009 and had been working in his own solo accounting practice since then, serving clients in Hendersonville.

He testified that he bought the 2012 BMW he was driving the night of crash because he felt business clients would perceive the car's owner as "someone who was financially responsible."

Stang guided her client through his driving record, which is replete with speeding tickets and also included a fender bender on King Street and a citation for driving while his license was suspended, in November 2016, a month before the fatal crash.

Schmieder recalled what happened when a state Highway Patrol trooper pulled him over on U.S. 74 in Polk County. The trooper told him his license was suspended and he had until Feb. 15, 2017, "to clear it up." Schmieder testifed that he took that to mean his license was not actually suspended yet, even though he admitted to knowing that the trooper asked his brother to drive before he let them go.

Schmieder said he followed up the Monday after Thanksgiving of 2016, found out he owed fines totaling about $600, and decided he would wait until after Christmas to pay them and get his license reinstated. He also testified that when he got a ticket for a rear-end collision on King Street, he did not know he had to go to court to answer for the charge. His license was revoked after that, though he said he was not aware of that and had not received a notification of that the Department of Motor Vehicles sent to his condo on March 13, 2014.

He testified about two occasions after that when law officers checked his drivers license, said nothing about a revocation and handed it back to him — once when he accidentally set off a burglar alarm at his office and a second time when he went through a DUI checkpoint.

When he was released from Mission hospital and a rehab center after the crash, he said on the stand, he paid fines at the clerk of court office and at the DMV, which issued him a new drivers license. He went to court in Polk County. "I showed the district attorney by regular license. He dismissed all the charges and sent me home," he said.

Asked about his injuries from the crash, Schmieder testified that he sustained a concussion, broke his left arm, his collarbone and four ribs, cracked his sternum, broke his left femur, tore tendons in both knees, had "really bad compound fractures" of both legs below the knees and had severely broken ankles and feet.

Stang asked him when he found out that he had killed someone in the crash.

He woke up from the injuries for the first time on Jan. 3, he said, "and was told straight away that I'd been in a car accidnt and it was bad." Three days later, his brother and his best friend told him that Derek Miller, the driver of the pickup truck he hit, had died.

"It was horrible," he said. "I didn't know what to do. I couldn't do anything to fix it. I told my brother and my friend all I could do was just try and be better and in some way try to make up for something I could never make up for."

"You knew it was your fault?" Stang asked.

"I did," he said.

On cross examination, Newman recounted what Schmieder did when he left South Rock — speeding, crossing a double yellow line to pass cars and then crashing at high speed head-on into the pickup truck driven by Miller. "I've heard testimony of no emergency that would necessitate driving in a fast and frantic manner to get home," Newman said. "How do you explain your behavior and your actions?"

"I can't," Schmieder responded. "There's no explanation."

Newman pointed out that Schmieder as an accountant advises clients on following the rules, yet he seemed to ignore the consequences of his speeding tickets and traffic citations.

"It's your testimony that you didn't know you had to do anything about it" when he received the ticket for the King Street collision, Newman said. "You just thought it was a notice that you caused a wreck. ... A man with a masters degree and you didn't think you had to go to court."

Newman asked if he remembered the testimony from first responders that he said at the crash scene, "I caused this" and "I 'eff'd up,' paraphrasing of course."

The D.A. pointed out that Schmieder remembered from the day of the crash the clients he served, a text from his brother inviting him to meet for dinner, what time he went, what he ate and drank and what time he settled up — yet "You don't remember anything from that point on?"

Because Schmieder received a blood transfusion in the operating room at Mission before blood was drawn for testing, the state was left with no admissable blood alcohol reading.

The defense team drew testimony, both from prosecution witnesses and a defense witness, that Schmieder did not appear to be impaired the night he left South Rock Grill. A bar manager and waitress testified to that on Thursday. On Friday, the defense called Mike Summey, a casual friend of Schmieder's who testified that Schmieder did not appear to be impaired.

Superior Court Judge Julia Gullett denied a defense motion to dismiss the second-degree murder charge on the ground that Schmieder's action did not rise to the level of malice required under the law. The defense has a couple more witnesses to call Monday morning. After closing arguments, the case would go to the jury.