A jury returned a verdict of not guilty Wednesday afternoon, May 4, for a Bellingham man who fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a group of high school boys.
Two Ferndale teens, Shane Ormiston, 18, and Gabriel Anderson, 15, were killed on that sunny afternoon, June 10, 2015, when an eastbound Toyota 4Runner crashed over a curb on West Smith Road.
The students had been on a spur-of-the-moment walk with their fifth period class at Windward High School, on the last week before summer vacation.
Right after the crash William Jeffrey Klein, 35, told the students’ teacher he fell asleep.
Prosecutor Dave McEachran charged him with two counts of vehicular homicide and two counts of vehicular assault. He alleged the defendant knew he was too tired to drive that afternoon. One coworker testified Klein looked and acted “run down” in the hours before the crash, and that Klein told him he felt tired.
The defense attorney, Michael Brodsky, argued Klein had no idea he would fall asleep, especially when one considers his son, age 3, was in the car with him. Klein had an untreated illness, obstructive sleep apnea, that left him without good rest, according to the defense. Klein didn’t know, his wife didn’t know, and his doctor didn’t know he had the disorder.
This man and his family have suffered for 10 months, and that’s not saying these other people haven’t suffered. But two wrongs don’t make a right.
Michael Brodsky, defense attorney for William Jeffrey Klein
At trial attorneys spent four days calling witnesses: four of Klein’s coworkers at Trader Joe’s, state troopers, two experts in sleep disorders, the deceased boys’ teacher, and two other students who survived being hit by the Toyota.
Jurors started deliberating at 9 a.m. Wednesday, to decide if the crash was a crime or an accident.
Six hours later Judge Ira Uhrig read the verdict to a packed courtroom. Some observers had to stand in the back.
“Mr. Klein,” the judge said, “the verdict form states that as to counts one, two, three and four, this jury has found you not guilty.”
At those words relatives of the boys groaned and rushed out of the room crying “oh, no.”
Their side of the courtroom aisle emptied as Uhrig polled the jury.
Klein, meanwhile, seemed to go into shock. His head fell forward and swiveled as he gasped for air. Once he collected himself he wiped away tears with a handkerchief, hugged his defense counsel, and went to embrace his wife, Sarah.
“This man and his family have suffered for 10 months, and that’s not saying these other people haven’t suffered,” Brodsky told a Bellingham Herald reporter moments later. “But two wrongs don’t make a right. You learn that in kindergarten.”
Klein declined to talk with media Wednesday.
The case, Brodsky said, is like no other that has been charged in Washington. Other drowsy driving incidents in Snohomish County, for example, have been resolved as infractions for negligent driving, not as felonies, he said.
“They’re sad, they’re tragic, they’re nobody’s fault,” Brodsky said. “Nobody should go to jail over it.”
McEachran alleged Klein drove with disregard for the safety of others, one of three ways to prosecute the state’s vehicular homicide law.
Reflections on the trial
On the day of the crash state troopers told media Klein was suspected of being under the influence of a drug. Klein had willingly told troopers he used cannabis. He told the trooper he hadn’t smoked that day, however, according to the defense. Blood tests came back negative for any sign of an active drug.
At trial McEachran told the jury Klein was worn out from an inadequate sleep schedule and a weeklong battle with the flu. Over the prior week the defendant had been bedridden with a fever of about 103 degrees. 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 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.
In his closing argument McEachran asked jurors to consider a conversation between Klein and Spencer Theriault, a coworker. 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.
So about three times a week, Klein said on the stand, he took catnaps after work in his Toyota 4Runner. He napped 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.
To me, this was a case that had to come before a jury. Specifically, the jury is called the conscience of the community.
Prosecutor Dave McEachran
Brodsky told the jury Klein felt no warning signs before he fell asleep.
“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?”
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.”
Minutes after the verdict was announced, McEachran said he was disappointed but he respected the jury’s decision.
“To me, this was a case that had to come before a jury,” McEachran said. “Specifically, the jury is called the conscience of the community.”
He added: “The thing that really propelled us in this case was just the fact the kids were walking on the sidewalk and were struck by this car, with the signs (of sleepiness) that we think he had. The jury has spoken, and I just feel very badly for the families.”
McEachran said the case won’t be appealed. Families of both of the teens who were killed filed wrongful death lawsuits against Klein last year; the cases are pending.
The state of Washington does not have a specific law against falling asleep while driving.
“This was a charge that should never, ever have been filed,” Brodsky said. “Simply, this could happen to any one of us, without ever having done anything wrong.”