Jury deliberates: Crime or accident for Bellingham man to fall asleep at wheel?

Bellingham driver who killed 2 takes the stand

William Jeffrey Klein, who hit 4 Ferndale students with his car, killing 2, in May 2015 takes the stand in Whatcom Superior Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2016.
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William Jeffrey Klein, who hit 4 Ferndale students with his car, killing 2, in May 2015 takes the stand in Whatcom Superior Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2016.

The county prosecutor alleges a Bellingham man was “on notice” that he was too tired to drive on the day he crashed into a group of high school students near Ferndale.

The defense argues nothing foreshadowed the moment that William Jeffrey Klein, 35, fell asleep at the wheel at 1:30 p.m. on a sunny day in June. His black Toyota 4Runner crashed into a group of Windward High School students on the sidewalk of West Smith Road.

Two boys, Shane Ormiston, 18, and Gabriel Anderson, 15, were killed.

After four days of trial, jurors started deliberating Wednesday morning, May 3. They must determine if the crash was a terrible crime or a tragic accident.

Closing arguments

If the case had been about whether the events of that day were horrible, it would have been a short trial, said the defense attorney, Michael Brodsky.

“The horror, the tragedy, the death, destruction, the injury of that day,” he said, “has not been challenged by the defense, one iota.”

The two sides disagree, however, about why Klein fell asleep.

The defense argues Klein had an illness, obstructive sleep apnea, that left him without a good night’s sleep, and unaware that he was prone to doze off without warning. A sleep doctor ran tests on Klein that showed the illness woke him up over 30 times an hour.

Klein didn’t know, his wife didn’t know, and his doctor didn’t know about his illness prior to the crash, according to the defense.

“In order to disregard something, you have to be aware,” Brodsky said. “You can’t disregard what you don’t know exists. And if you’re not aware that you’re about to fall asleep, that you’re in danger of falling asleep, how can you disregard it?”

Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran alleged in his closing argument that Klein should have known he was worn out from an inadequate sleep schedule and a weeklong battle with the flu.

McEachran reminded the jury how the defendant had just been bedridden with a fever of about 103 degrees the week before the crash. He missed days of work at Trader Joe’s.

On the witness stand, Klein testified he felt good enough to return to work by Sunday night. But he waited an extra day on the advice of his wife, Sarah, and took Monday off to get better. It was his second day back on the day of the crash, Wednesday, June 10.

McEachran argued Klein should have known he hadn’t fully recovered.

“This defendant knew he’d been sick,” McEachran said. “He also knew how he felt that day.”

Klein denied feeling any serious residual effects from the flu. He said he considered himself at 90 or 95 percent of normal, and that was not alarming to him.

His attorney told the jury: “Let’s say you were only feeling 75 percent. Which one of us would say, ‘Boy, I shouldn’t drive home with my 3-year-old in the backseat.’ Which one of us hasn’t driven sick? Or a little bit tired? We all have.”

Reconsidering testimony

McEachran asked jurors to consider a conversation between Klein and Spencer Theriault, a coworker at Trader Joe’s. The two men were working together in the hours before the crash, unloading dairy products on a shift that started at 4 a.m.

According to Theriault’s testimony, Klein worked slower than normal, and he seemed “run down,” like he needed rest. Klein said he was tired and that he’d just gotten over being sick, Theriault testified. That, McEachran argued, shows Klein knew he was in no shape to drive.

“That’s all there is,” Brodsky said, in a counterargument. “That’s all there is. The rest of the case is carnage. And carnage is not, itself, a crime.”

Theriault didn’t tell Klein not to drive, and he didn’t tell anyone that Klein should go home, according to the defense. On the stand, Theriault said he would have taken a ride from Klein.

“Spencer says: You look a little run down, Bill,” Brodsky said. “That is what the state is hanging its hat on.”

Under oath Klein said he worked closely with Theriault that morning, but he didn’t recall the conversation in question.

In a recorded interview with a detective, Klein said he often got around four or five hours of sleep, on nights before the early shift. He went on to say he felt tired about once a week as he drove home.

About three times a week, he said on the stand, Klein took catnaps after work in his Toyota 4Runner. He took a nap in the hour or so before the crash, just before he picked up his son, age 3, from a Montessori school in Ferndale.

About a quarter-hour later he fell asleep at the wheel. The Toyota crashed onto the sidewalk. The two boys were killed, and two others were seriously hurt. The boys had been on an impromptu walk in the sunshine with their fifth period class at Windward High.

McEachran argued the defendant didn’t take his responsibility as a driver seriously, with disastrous results.

“It’s a 3,600-pound vehicle, when you put people in it,” McEachran said. “Thirty-six-hundred pounds. That becomes a weapon when it’s driven down the road, and you have to be a responsible driver.”

A crash reconstruction expert for the defense, David Wells, calculated that Klein had about one second to react, from the time the Toyota hit the curb to the time the vehicle hit the children — no time, Brodsky said, for a sleeping driver to wake up and change the course of events.

McEachran said the speed of the crash wasn’t the key issue.

“The issue in this case was driving on the sidewalk,” McEachran said. “Nobody should drive on the sidewalk.”

Jurors must decide if Klein drove with “disregard for the safety of others,” one of three ways to violate the state’s vehicular homicide law.

There is no specific law against falling asleep while driving in Washington.

On the first day of the trial relatives of the deceased boys sobbed in the courtroom gallery — a room that stayed mostly full throughout the trial — as details of the crash were recounted in mechanical detail.

Judge Ira Uhrig cautioned the public to try not to show strong emotion, to avoid influencing the jury. He urged jurors to not be swayed by feeling, but to use reason.

ARCHIVE VIDEO: Two teens killed in accident near Ferndale

Two teens were killed and two others taken to St. Joseph hospital after they were hit by an SUV on W. Smith Road on June 10, 2015.


Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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