Date set at appeals court in vehicular homicide case

Two sides in a case involving a fatal collision on South Whidbey will be argued before the state Court of Appeals July 18, according to Island County Chief Criminal Prosecutor Eric Ohme.

That is, unless the date gets changed again.

Michelle D. Nichols was convicted of vehicular homicide for causing the Feb. 14, 2015, collision that killed South Whidbey resident Timothy Keil, but she isn’t serving time while the appeals process moves forward.

Mary Jo Keil, Timothy Keil’s widow, has run out of patience with how long the legal process has taken; hearing after hearing has been continued, both in superior and appeals court.

“This process has been going on for far too long,” she said. “Justice needs to be served.”

The question for the appeals court is whether blood evidence obtained at the hospital from Nichols — nearly four hours after the crash and after blood transfusions — can be used as evidence against her. Island County Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill ruled in a pre-trial hearing that state troopers had the requisite probable cause to take her blood and that exigent circumstances were sufficient to allow a warrantless blood draw.

Since it was clear that the issue would be appealed, the prosecutor and defense attorney agreed to a bench trial in which a judge instead of a jury hears the evidence and comes to a verdict. It’s unusual in Island County, but it allows for an expedited process.

Churchill found Nichols guilty of the “dui prong” of the vehicular homicide statute and sentenced her to 126 months in prison, which is the maximum. A person can be found guilty of vehicular homicide if he or she causes a fatal collision by operating a vehicle in one of three ways: while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, in a reckless manner or with disregard for the safety of others.

A person found guilty of vehicular homicide while driving under the influence faces a much longer sentence than if he or she was guilty for one of the other two reasons.

As part of the deal between the prosecution and defense, Nichols was allowed to be free until the appeal was decided.

Briefs by Ohme and the defense attorney agree on the basic facts of the case. Just after 8:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day 2015, Kiel was driving 1993 Honda Accord on Highway 525. Nichols was driving a 1988 Ford van in the opposing direction. The van drifted to the right and struck a guardrail. She then drove the van across the center line and into the opposing lane of traffic, striking Keil’s car head on. He died at the scene.

Nichols was also seriously injured and airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Blood samples were taken at the hospital while she was unconscious and being prepped for surgery. Tests later showed that three hours and 51 minutes after the collision, her blood-alcohol level was 0.11, more than the 0.08 state limit.

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