Regardless of whether a Manito man smoked marijuana before the pickup truck he drove flipped over to kill a passenger, a blown tire caused the accident, his attorney argued in court Friday.

Because Stephen King did smoke the drug several hours before the crash, he’s guilty of causing the crash and the Pekin man’s death simply because he was driving, King’s prosecutor countered.

“This is a very important case” in light of the state’s DUI law and previous cases interpreting it, said Tazewell County Associate Judge Kim Kelley after testimony and arguments in the half-day bench trial.

Kelley will render his verdict on Feb. 28 after reviewing the evidence and issues in the case that carries a maximum 14-year prison term if he finds King, 48, guilty of aggravated DUI causing death.

Ricky Nelson, 55, died at the scene of the one-vehicle crash on April 17, 2015, on Delavan Road about a mile north of Delavan. King and another passenger, Joe Woodard, then 35, of Peoria, suffered minor injuries. Nelson was wearing a seat belt in the vehicle’s front passenger seat.

King pleaded guilty before testimony began in the death-related case to aggravated DUI involving drugs as a third DUI offense. He told police he had smoked two bowls of marijuana the morning of the mid-day crash.

While driving south on Delavan with the men on an errand, King said he felt a wobble in one of the tires, according to police testimony. He suggested to Nelson, who owned the pickup, that he should get new tires.

Soon after that comment, the right front tire failed – defense attorney Joseph Bembenek called it a blow-out – and the vehicle veered to the right as King tried to maintain control, King told police. The truck went off the road, struck a culvert and a guy wire while airborne and landed on its top.

“This accident happens if anyone was driving that vehicle,” sober or intoxicated, Bembenek argued. “It wasn’t Stephen King’s driving, it was a blow-out, plain and simple.”

That’s not the law, countered Assistant State’s Attorney Mara Mishler. 

“We wouldn’t have an accident if (King) wasn’t driving,” and he was doing so with elements of marijuana and cocaine in his system, Mishler said. Cocaine was not cited as a factor in the case.

The trial came nearly four years after the accident in part because King’s original attorney was forced by illness to withdraw. King remains free on bond pending its outcome as well as his sentencing on the third-case DUI conviction that carries up to seven years in prison.