A judge sentenced a former Bulloch County woman for a Statesboro Vehicular Homicide that claimed the life of Dakota Daniels.
The case stems from a motorcycle crash that led to the Homicide by Vehicle charge, though it all concluded in Bulloch County State Court this week.
Keyah Durden entered an open-ended plea under the First Offender Act before Judge Joseph Cushner, who heard from the victim’s family and then imposed a sentence.
On January 24, 2020, Georgia State Patrol says Dakota Cornelius Daniels, 33, was in the right lane, heading south on Veterans Memorial Parkway when Durden pulled her Nissan Versa into his path as she attempted to make a left turn from Statesboro Place Circle. According to reports, Daniels tried to change lanes but lost control of his motorcycle. The motorcycle skidded on its side before striking Durden’s car. He died as a result of his injuries.
The Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team (SCRT) within the Georgia State Patrol took over the investigation, as is often standard with fatal crashes.
In September 2020, eight months after the crash, the Georgia State Patrol charged Durden with Homicide by Vehicle in the 2nd Degree and Failure to Yield After Stopping at a Stop Sign. Both charges are misdemeanor offenses that carry a maximum of 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The Bulloch County Jail booked Durden and released her on $5,000 bond. The case then began the criminal adjudication process and the Solicitor General drafted a formal accusation.
Durden retained Statesboro attorney Malone Hart.
Request for Jury Trial
Following a series of court appearances and the providing of discovery, Durden and her attorney sought a jury trial.
The court set a trial date and the State subpoenaed two dozen individuals as witnesses, including a nurse and a doctor from East Georgia Regional Medical Center, 9 officers and 2 detectives with the Statesboro Police Department, 3 Troopers with the Georgia State Patrol, the Director from Bulloch County E911, Bulloch County Coroner Jake Futch and 6 other individuals.
Ahead of the scheduled trial, a ‘plea day’ — often used as a way to negotiate and resolve cases in the 11th hour and avoid using resources required for a jury trial — provided an opportunity for resolution with Bulloch County State Court Solicitor Catherine Findley. On January 19, 2022, Durden entered a plea under the First Offender Act. The FOA is an alternative form of sentencing used for people without a criminal history and are not charged with a violent crime or DUI. Individuals who successfully complete their sentence under this program can have the adjudication sealed from their criminal history report. The First Offender Act still leaves sentencing parameters up to the judge after considering the circumstances of the case and the character of the accused. More importantly, FOA sentencing is a one-time opportunity.
As part of her sentence, the court required Durden to surrender her driver’s license. She must also take a defensive driving course before her license reinstatement. As a condition of probation, Durden may not use drugs or alcohol.
Family of Dakota Daniels Responds
Family members and friends of Daniels say they didn’t support the plea deal. His fiancée posted her comments about the sentence on social media, prompting dozens of responses.
One friend commented, “I don’t agree with it either. In 2016, a man rear ended my wife. It killed her, my daughter, and my grandmother. My granddaddy and my niece survived the accident. Man wasn’t charged with anything or convicted of anything. It hurts to see people not punished for their negligence when it takes a life.” That case was handled in Jenkins County.
Another friend, a motorcycle rider himself, said “Ignorant drivers like that are killing us daily!!! They should be charged with murder!!!!”
Others asked why the sentence included First Offender conditions despite another person dying. But Georgia law does not utilize a blanket prohibition based on ‘offense type.’ Even felonies like voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter are eligible for sentencing under the First Offender Act.
Dakota Daniels left behind two children, Dakota Jr. and Gauge.
State Law on Homicide by Vehicle
In Georgia, drivers are subject to two different charges when a fatality occurs as a result of a traffic crash:
- Homicide by Vehicle – 1st degree (FELONY) applies when a person causes the death of another with their vehicle ‘without malice aforethought.’ The death must result in the commission of one of the following unlawful acts:
- Reckless Driving,
- Improperly passing a school bus,
- Fleeing/Attempting to Elude a Police Officer, or
- Driving as a habitual violator.
- Also considered is whether or not a person leaves the scene.
- A conviction carries a 3-15 year sentence in prison.
- Homicide by Vehicle – 2nd degree (MISDEMEANOR) applies when a person causes the death of another without malice aforethought and without committing the unlawful acts listed in the felony charge. The law requires these offenses to be sentenced as misdemeanors (maximum 12 months in jail, $1,000 fine) with specifics set forth by the judge.
There are no other provisions in Georgia law for charging individuals with causing the death of another in a motor vehicle crash.
While First Degree Vehicular Homicide cases garner more media attention, second degree cases are much more common. Last fall, a Chatham County grand jury indicted the driver responsible for the crash that killed Bulloch County native Harrison Deal.
Georgia is not alone in its two-pronged approach to vehicular homicides. A piece featured in a Greenville, SC newspaper illustrated the common frustration among family members who lost a loved one at the hands of someone else and received only a traffic citation.
Defense attorneys like Gregg Freeburn, however, say sometimes accidents do happen and that doesn’t make a driver the same as a violent felon or drug trafficker.
“It has to be action that is deemed egregious or in complete conscious disregard for the safety of other individuals on the roadway in order to fall into the category where someone would be charged with a crime that would send them to jail,” Freeburn said.
Nevertheless, the Georgia General Assembly routinely reconsiders the code sections, more so as the trend of driverless cars gains momentum. In the meantime, families of both those lost and those convicted continue to lobby for change.
Editorial disclaimer: The author of this article has a pending case in Bulloch County State Court in which she is the listed victim.