A 39-year-old Post Falls man with a history of reckless driving was convicted Thursday of vehicular manslaughter.
But Michael R. Opland will face no more than a year in jail.
A jury of seven women and five men found Opland guilty of accidentally killing Darlene King, a popular Kootenai County worker, in a car accident last winter.
But after 13 hours of deliberation, the jury reduced the charge from a felony to a gross misdemeanor.
Its decision was a blow to family and friends of King, mother of four.
“If it hadn’t been for him, she would still be here,” said King’s friend, Carol DeFrancesco, who stood in the courthouse crying and shaking with the news. “It never should have happened.”
King, 39, of Rathdrum, Idaho, spent 10 years working for the county, eventually becoming the commissioners’ administrative assistant. She was known to most of the 500 county employees, some of whom filled the courtroom during Opland’s five-day trial.
On Jan. 24, King was driving home, heading north on state Highway 41. Opland was driving his pickup south when he tried to pass a group of cars, slid on the icy highway and crashed into King’s car. She died at the scene.
Opland was charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
During closing arguments Wednesday, deputy prosecutor Lansing Haynes accused Opland of driving too fast on the snow and ice-covered road and for then trying to zoom past a long line of cars. Haynes accused Opland of being too impatient to wait behind the cars that were traveling at about 35 mph.
Instead, Opland decided “to tromp on it; to blast through with oncoming traffic,” Haynes said. “He became a bullet hurdling down the road.”
But Opland’s attorney, Glen Walker, said Opland thought the coast was clear when he decided to pass. Walker contends a dip in the road hid King’s car from view.
When he realized he had to pass five or six cars, Opland tried to pull into the line of traffic but the other drivers would not let him in, Walker said. He blamed the accident on the other drivers, saying Opland could have pulled back into the other lane if the others hadn’t been driving too close to each other.
The jury was given the option of convicting Opland of the felony - meaning his actions were a flagrant disregard for human life - or of the misdemeanor - meaning he had behaved unreasonably and imprudently.
Walker said he and Opland were pleased with the jury’s decision to find him guilty on the lesser charge.
“It’s what we set out for,” Walker said as King’s family and friends sobbed in the background. “We told him not to expect an acquittal.”
According to court records, Opland has been cited for the very thing he blamed the other drivers for the night King died.
In Sept. 1994, police cited Opland for following another vehicle too closely. His car smashed into the back of a woman’s car, leaving her with neck, back and hip injuries.
Opland has been cited numerous times for speeding. He’s been cited for driving on the wrong side of the highway and operating an unsafe vehicle. He’s also been convicted of drunken driving.
The jury, however, was not allowed to hear about his driving record during the trial.
“We put our hearts and soul into this case,” said a disappointed prosecutor Bill Douglas. “It was a battle for justice for Darlene King.”
“There will come a time when justice will come,” said Shannon White, King’s sister. “Maybe not now. Some day.”
Opland is to be sentenced Dec. 30. He faces no more than a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Opland’s prior record will likely weigh into the sentence, Douglas said.
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