Michelle Nichols, sitting next to attorney David Carman, was sentenced Monday for vehicular homicide. (Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News Group)

Michelle Nichols, sitting next to attorney David Carman, was sentenced Monday for vehicular homicide. (Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News Group)

Four years after fatal DUI crash, driver sent to prison

On Valentine’s Day in 2015, Michelle Nichols lost control of her van and struck a car, killing a man.

By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News Group

WHIDBEY ISLAND — Four years after her husband was killed by a drunk driver on Whidbey Island, Mary Jo Keil quietly wept in court.

Michelle D. Nichols, the woman who caused the fatal crash, was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison for vehicular homicide.

Keil said it was a relief for the court process to come to an end, but nothing is going to bring her husband back.

“It doesn’t bring closure,” she said.

The couple’s son and about a dozen others from South Whidbey attended the hearing Monday to support Keil. She said her late husband, Timothy Keil, was a kind and caring man and had many friends on Whidbey Island.

“They held me up during the whole process of hearing after hearing after hearing,” she said.

Nichols came into court with crutches and a medical boot on one foot. She spoke at the original sentencing hearing, but Island County Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill gave her another chance to address the room on Monday. She declined.

The fatal crash happened on Valentine’s Day in 2015, just after 8:30 p.m. Timothy Kiel was driving a 1993 Honda Accord on Highway 525. Nichols was driving a 1988 Ford van in the opposite direction. The van drifted to the right and struck a guardrail. Nichols over-corrected, and the van swerved across the center line and into the opposing lane of traffic. She struck Keil’s car head-on.

Washington State Patrol troopers took took a blood sample for testing while she was unconscious and being prepped for surgery. Four hours after the collision, her blood-alcohol level was 0.11 percent.

There was some debate during pre-trial hearings about whether the troopers had probable cause to take that blood sample without a search warrant. Churchill ruled that they did.

It was a decision that could have been appealed if Nichols was convicted, so the prosecution and defense came up with a unique plea agreement.

Both sides agreed to a bench trial with the understanding that a sentence, if any, would be stayed until the appeals process was over. Under a bench trial, a judge instead of a jury hears the evidence and comes to a verdict.

Mary Jo Keil said the family agreed to the plan because they wanted to avoid a trial, which carried the possibility of an acquittal.

After the sentencing, the case went to the Court of Appeals, where Churchill’s ruling was affirmed. Nichols asked the state Supreme Court to consider the case, but it declined. The options for appeals came to an end Feb. 1 after the the appeals court issued a mandate.

The results were enough for Mike Padgett, the son of Timothy Keil.

“She was given the maximum sentence,” Padgett said. “If I could be grateful for anything, I was grateful for that.”

The court process took its toll on Mary Jo Keil. She said she moved from Whidbey Island a couple of years ago to be closer to family, but also because she couldn’t bear to live on the island without her husband.

She felt that the long delay in justice didn’t help anyone.

“If she had admitted the guilt in the beginning,” she said, referring to Nichols, “she would have three to four years of the sentence under her belt already.”

The Whidbey News Group is a sibling organization of The Daily Herald.

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