A Manito man will likely go to prison for up to 14 years for the death four years ago of a Pekin man who rode in the pickup truck he drove after smoking marijuana.

A Tazewell County judge on Thursday found Stephen King, 48, guilty of aggravated DUI causing death to end a bench trial that began with a half-day of testimony and arguments last week.

Ricky Nelson, 55, was killed at the scene when the right front tire of his vehicle, which King was driving, blew out on April 17, 2015, on Delavan Road a mile north of Delavan. The truck veered into the road’s right ditch, struck a culvert, flipped over and landed on its top. King and a second passenger suffered minor injuries.

“This is a very important case” in light of the state’s DUI drug law and previous cases interpreting it, Associate Judge Kim Kelley said after hearing the evidence.  

Defense attorney Joseph Bembenek argued the accident “happens if anyone was driving that vehicle,” sober or intoxicated. The blow-out was the “sole cause” of the crash, he said.

Kelley agreed with a prosecutor that King’s mere act of driving with marijuana in his system, after he’d smoked a small amount a few hours before the accident, was sufficient to find guilt under the law.

He added that, while the tire failure immediately caused the accident, King’s fault extended to his admission that he noticed the tire might be flawed before the drive began and a “wobble” in it as he drove.

“We know (drug) consumption impedes good decision making,” Kelley said. King “felt the wobble and continued to drive,” even after suggesting to Nelson he should get new tires.

King pleaded guilty before the trial began to a related charge of aggravated DUI as a third offense. Kelley revoked King’s bond after his verdict and set sentencing in both cases for April 18. King faces at least three prison years unless Kelley finds “extraordinary circumstances” permit him to order probation.

The case extended over nearly four years in part because King’s original attorney was forced by illness to withdraw.