A drunken driver was sentenced to serve 6½ years behind bars for a crash that killed a motorcyclist in Whatcom County.
However, Brian Jeffery Smith, can post bail to stay out of prison as he appeals his guilty verdict to higher courts, Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder ruled at a sentencing hearing Wednesday. Appeals can stretch on for months or years.
“I feel like he got off. He’s not going to jail,” said Heidie Schuyleman, the wife of Jason Lyle “Bone” Schuyleman, who died that night in December 2014.
Smith, 33, of Everson, was turning left into his neighborhood on Christopher Lane in Everson around 8:50 p.m. Dec. 5, 2014, when his white Chevy Suburban crashed almost head-on into a westbound Honda VF1100c motorcycle ridden by Schuyleman.
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Schuyleman, a steel worker and father of six, landed on the hood of the Chevy. He died that night at St. Joseph hospital from a lacerated aorta. He was 38.
An off-duty nurse testified Smith showed no signs of impaired driving as she tailed his SUV before the crash, and that afterward he seemed sober and apologetic. But a Washington state trooper thought Smith seemed drunk. He failed a sobriety test, and he was taken to the hospital to have his blood drawn. He refused, but the trooper had a warrant. Smith yanked his arm away and made up excuses – it was against his religion, for example – to avoid giving a sample of blood. (He’s Catholic, a religion with no prohibition on giving blood.)
Smith testified during his November trial that an extreme fear of needles made him react in the way he did. A deputy prosecutor, Eric Richey, argued that Smith was trying to hide the evidence of his guilt.
“Never in 25 years have I seen or even heard of a case where someone fought so hard for self-preservation to prevent him from being found guilty in this case,” Richey said at the hearing Wednesday.
Hospital staff took Smith to a padded room, tied him in restraints, and gave him a sedative to make him stop flailing. His blood was drawn 4½ hours after the crash. Tests gauged his blood-alcohol content at 0.05 percent, below the legal limit. Alcohol burns out of the body at a rate around 0.015 percent per hour, however, meaning he would have been above the limit at the time of the crash, according to experts for both the prosecution and the defense. The defense emphasized that it’s an estimate and could be wrong.
That December night Smith told the troopers he had nothing to drink. That was a lie told out of fear, he said on the witness stand. Smith testified he had one beer that night, a Budweiser, in the parking lot of the Rusty Wagon, a restaurant, as he waited for his wife to feed their baby. He did not order drinks in the restaurant, and he claimed he didn’t drink alcohol at a BP company Christmas party before that.
At trial Smith’s defense pointed to the headlight on Schuyleman’s motorcycle and how it flickered off and on when examined after the crash. That might explain why Smith didn’t see the motorcyclist, the defense argued.
Jurors deliberated for a day before finding Smith guilty of vehicular homicide while intoxicated and obstructing law enforcement. He faced a sentence of 6½ to 8½ years in prison.
The Schuyleman family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Smith in 2014 and received $250,000 from his insurer, the most allowed under his plan. The family sued BP, too, alleging that Smith likely drank at the company Christmas party, though alcohol supposedly wasn’t served. Last week Smith gave a deposition in the civil case, according to a memorandum written by Heidie’s lawyer. Again, under oath, Smith maintained that he drank one beer that night.
Smiths’ relatives packed the left side of the courtroom Wednesday, while the Schuylemans sat on the right side of the aisle.
“I’ve prayed about what to say today,” said Jason’s mother, Valerie Schuyelman, fighting tears as she turned to face Smith. “And this is what God has led me to: I forgive you.”
One of Schuyleman’s daughters, Sarina, spoke directly to Smith, too.
“I know you have a huge family, and I know they need you, but you took a big part – a big part away from me,” she said. “And I just wanted to say, I’m sorry for you, too. It’s not just my family that’s hurting and your whole family.”
Defense attorneys Mark Kaiman and Jonathan Rands submitted 142 pages of letters from relatives, teachers, coaches, family friends and coworkers attesting to Smith’s good character as a husband, a father of five and a coach of wrestling, T-ball, and flag football.
“Our hearts hurt for their loss, and the weight of being involved in an accident where a life was lost will forever haunt us,” wrote his wife, Katie Smith, who read a letter to a mostly full courtroom. “But this was an accident. It was not premeditated. It was not intentional. It was not a malicious, violent act.”
For the past two years Smith hasn’t been allowed to drive, under court order. So his wife and co-workers have driven him to work, and his family sold their house to pay for his defense. Smith apologized to the Schuylemans for their loss. He said he now understands the danger of getting behind the wheel after drinking even a little alcohol.
“I will never put myself in a position where that will potentially happen again,” he said.
“I have five young children you’ve heard about who depend on me for my support,” he added. “If there is any alternative sentencing option that would allow me to serve my sentence, while still being present and support my family, I sincerely ask that you consider this, as my main worry is for my children.”
Snyder prefaced his ruling with a 10-minute preamble, explaining how the law would not let him give the kind of alternative suggested in many letters, and how he had struggled for many days with his decision.
“Mr. Schuyleman’s family has suffered a permanent loss, one that can never be reversed, and one that is not lessened by whether Mr. Smith is a good man, a good father, or a good husband,” he said.
Schuyleman’s wife, Heidie, had asked for the maximum sentence. She broke into tears as Snyder handed down a prison term at the bottom of the standard range, of 6½ years. Snyder ruled that Smith could stay out of prison while he appeals the verdict, if he could post $100,000 bond.
“Mr. Smith, take the opportunity, when this is all done, to spread the word,” Snyder concluded. “Tell everybody what happened to you, and that it can happen to them, and don’t let it happen again.”
“I will, your honor,” Smith answered.
Outside the courtroom, Heidie Schuyleman said she was “very disappointed” with the ruling. The focus, she said, had been on the hardships for Smith’s family, not hers.
“What about our kids?” she said. “And the financial – what about us? Jason was the sole provider. What am I supposed to do now?”
Smith was briefly booked into jail and released on appeal bond by 2 p.m. Wednesday.