Appeals court hears Nichols case

The state Appeals Court heard arguments over a South Whidbey vehicular homicide case last week.

But a final resolution in the case may still be months away.

Michelle D. Nichols was convicted in a bench trial of vehicular homicide for causing the Feb. 14, 2015, collision that resulted in the death of South Whidbey resident Timothy Keil, but she isn’t serving time while the appeals process continues.

Island County Chief Criminal Prosecutor Eric Ohme said he thought it went well before the appeals court, but he won’t know for sure until the appeals court publishes an opinion.

Ohme said he expects the ruling to come in about six weeks.

If the appeals court agrees with the prosecution, Nichols’ attorneys can appeal to the state Supreme Court. If that happens, Ohme said, the case may not be resolved until early 2019.

If he loses, Ohme said he will retry the case, but in front of a jury.

In a bench trial, a judge rather than a jury hears the evidence and comes to a verdict. Ohme said both sides agreed to a bench trial to avoid having more than one full jury trial and to expedite the process.

The process, however, has taken longer than he thought it would, Ohme conceded.

The defense asked for continuances at the Court of Appeals several times.

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.

In the bench trial, 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.

As part of the deal between the prosecution and defense, Nichols was allowed to remain free until the appeal is decided. She was ordered to wear an ankle bracelet to ensure she doesn’t drink alcohol, according to Ohme.

Briefs prepared by Ohme and the defense attorney agree on the facts of the case. Just after 8:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day 2015, Kiel was driving a 1993 Honda Accord on State 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.

Keil 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 percent, more than the 0.08 percent state limit.

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