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DUI trial hears survivor of crash that killed 3

By SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


TAMPA -- It seemed that the four college students ended up in the car together that November night, at that intersection, at that terrible moment, by a series of coincidences.

That morning, Leanna Dawson just happened to notice fellow college student David Sanders at the airport, offered him a ride back to campus, and later invited him to hang out at her dorm.

Sanders said he just happened to spot an acquaintance, Majid Tahri, and invited him along. Later, Sanders, who didn't much care for the food at McDonald's, decided to ride along to the restaurant with the others anyway.

That's how they came to be headed through the intersection of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Fletcher Avenue late that night a year ago, returning to campus, when a speeding white Cadillac smashed into their car.

"What is now your next memory?" a prosecutor asked Sanders on the witness stand Wednesday.

"Waking up in the ambulance," Sanders said.

"You never saw a white Cadillac that night?" the prosecutor asked.

"Never," Sanders said.

His testimony marked the second day in the DUI-manslaughter trial of Mitchell Houston James. James, 40, is accused of blowing through the red light and ripping into Dawson's Pontiac Firebird. Investigators have said James' blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legally presumed level of impairment.

Dawson, 19, and Tahri, 20, died instantly. Jaclyn Ayala, 18, died hours later at Tampa General Hospital.

Investigators said James, who suffered a broken leg and whose face smashed his windshield, lay bleeding on a 12-pack of Budweiser beer in his car.

But James' attorney said this week that the Cadillac's brakes were faulty.

Sanders, the sole survivor in the carful of University of South Florida students, suffered a crushed arm and other injuries that cause memory losses, he said Wednesday.

On the stand, Sanders admitted that the foursome gathered at the Gamma Hall dormitory that night and shared two joints containing tobacco and hash. But he said they were "long not high anymore" by the time they got in Dawson's car for a late-night McDonald's run. He said Dawson drove safely and all wore seat belts.

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