Former University of Georgia football star Jalen Carter was convicted Thursday on two misdemeanor charges related to a car crash that killed another player and a member of the team’s recruiting staff.
A plea deal with Athens-Clarke County prosecutors allowed Carter, once considered a top pick in next month’s NFL draft, to avoid jail time. A judge sentenced him to 12 months of probation, fined him $1,013 and ordered him to perform 50 hours of community service.
Carter pleaded no contest, neither admitting nor denying charges of street racing and reckless driving. He took the plea deal “to resolve this matter in the most efficient manner possible,” his lawyer, Kim T. Stephens, said in a statement.
The conviction capped a turbulent and tragic period for Georgia’s football program. Since the team won its second consecutive national championship in January, Carter was charged in connection with the high-speed crash on Jan. 15 that killed offensive lineman Devin Willock and recruiting analyst Chander LeCroy and injured lineman Warren McClendon, and recruiting staff member Tory Bowles. Linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson was arrested last month in an unrelated street racing incident that occurred five days before the crash, and former quarterback Stetson Bennett was charged in Texas on Jan. 29 with public intoxication.
Despite the fatal crash and the arrests, coach Kirby Smart said this week that he has “complete control of our program and our kids in our program.”
The police in Athens obtained arrest warrants for Carter, 21, on March 1, hours after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported he had left the scene of the fatal crash, apparently before authorities arrived. Documents reviewed by the Journal-Constitution showed that Carter was summoned back to the scene about an hour and a half later by Bryant Gantt, an official with the football program who frequently intercedes with law enforcement when players get into trouble. Under questioning by the police, Carter gave inconsistent accounts of the crash. First he said he was nearly a mile away when the wreck occurred. Later, he said he was following the SUV driven by LeCroy closely enough to see its taillights — but also acknowledged he had been driving alongside the vehicle.
Police investigators determined from the SUV’s onboard computer that LeCroy had been driving as fast as 104 mph, according to court records.
Credit: Photo provided by Ceciley Pangburn
Credit: Photo provided by Ceciley Pangburn
When the police filed charges against Carter, officers described a manic scene leading to the crash, which occurred about 2:45 a.m. after a citywide celebration of the team’s latest national championship. While driving from a downtown strip club to a Waffle House three miles away, Carter’s Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk and the rented Ford Expedition driven by LeCroy “switched between lanes, drove in opposite lanes of travel, overtook other motorists and drove at high rates of speed, in an apparent attempt to outdistance each other,” the police said.
After the crash, Carter stopped his car and “ran toward the wrecked vehicle while his passenger called 911,” his lawyer, Stephens, said. Stephens did not identify the passenger.
Carter “never left the scene of the accident without being told he could leave,” Stephens said in a statement. In a later interview with the Journal-Constitution, however, Stephens said he didn’t know who cleared Carter’s departure.
“It was somebody who he knew to have authority,” Stephens said. “I don’t know if it was directly from law enforcement.”
Carter stopped for gas on the way home and returned to the crash site when he learned the police wanted to question him, Stephens said. At the time, according to documents reviewed by the Journal-Constitution, Carter denied racing or even driving fast.
Stephens also said Carter did nothing to cause the crash and had not been drinking. A toxicology examination by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found that LeCroy’s blood-alcohol concentration was .197, more than twice the legal limit of .08.
After his arrest, Carter posted a statement on Twitter predicting he would be “fully exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing.”
But criminal-defense experts interviewed Thursday said Carter’s no-contest plea provides no vindication.
“Essentially, you’re not admitting you did it but you’re not contesting they could make a case against you,” said Jack Martin, a prominent Atlanta defense attorney. “It is a conviction.”
However, the plea could benefit Carter if he faces lawsuits over the crash, said Don Samuel, another criminal-defense lawyer from Atlanta. Plaintiffs’ lawyers, Samuel said, would not be able to cite Carter’s conviction as an admission of fault for the crash.
It remains unclear how the resolution of Carter’s criminal case might affect his standing in the NFL draft. On Wednesday, Carter appeared at Georgia’s Pro Day nine pounds heavier than he was in February, and he could not complete drills because of poor conditioning.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has provided extensive coverage of a fatal car crash on Jan. 15 that killed a University of Georgia football player and a recruiting analyst. Previous stories have reported that recruiting staff and players had left an Athens strip club minutes before the crash, that the police allowed a football team official to access the crash scene and that the police questioned UGA star Jalen Carter about racing the car that crashed. For the latest, go to ajc.com.