PEKIN — None of Ricky Nelson’s family wanted to see their close friend Stephen King go to prison for driving a pickup truck that blew a tire and crashed, killing Nelson four years ago.
If not for that, “This easily could be a nine- or 10-year sentence” for King, 49, of Manito, who smoked marijuana before the accident, said a Tazewell County judge on Tuesday.
Instead, Associate Judge Kim Kelley imposed five years and eight months at King’s sentence hearing, which continued after it started last week.
Kelley found King guilty in a February bench trial of aggravated DUI causing death, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. He added a three-year term, to be served concurrently, for DUI as a third offense, to which King had pleaded guilty.
Nelson, 55, of Pekin died of blunt trauma when the right front tire of the truck failed April 17, 2015, on Delavan Road a mile north of Delavan. The truck veered right off the road, flipped when it struck a culvert and landed on its top. King and another passenger suffered minor injuries.
Kelley concluded in the trial that King, who admitted smoking a bowl of marijuana a few hours before the accident, was mentally impaired when the three men left Pekin in Nelson’s truck. The three were picking up tables for a child’s birthday party.
The drug’s presence in King’s body as he drove was enough to warrant conviction, Kelley said. But he noted that King alerted Nelson to a flaw in the damaged tire before driving and felt a “wobble” in it as he drove. Kelley said that pointed to drug-impaired judgment.
“I can’t explain how much pain I feel at the loss of my best friend’s life,” King told Kelley. He wept softly when Derrick Nelson, the victim’s grown son, said his family members “all agree that Steve’s been through the worst punishment” already. Any more would be “unjust,” Nelson said.
Defense attorney Joseph Bembenek said those feelings, and his argument that the damaged tire was the victim’s responsibility, produce “extraordinary circumstances” that would warrant a sentence of probation.
Assistant State’s Attorney Mara Mishler countered that King deserves “no less than 12 years” in prison, in part because he was arrested for DUI in Peoria County and possessing cocaine in Tazewell while free on bond in the fatal accident case.
Kelley said he couldn’t take faith in King’s claim that he’s “a changed man,” now sober.
“There’s a need for the public to know,” Kelley said, that in DUI-related fatal accidents, “it’s very unlikely that probation would be a remedy.”
King must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence, which would amount to about 4 1/2 more years with credit for his incarceration since his conviction.