WALLA WALLA -- A man was led out of a Superior Court courtroom Monday afternoon to begin serving a two-year prison sentence for shooting and killing his camping partner in a drunken stupor in the Blue Mountains last September.
Robert L. Nelson had apologized for taking Kenneth Brooks' life. "There's nobody more sorry for what happened to my friend than me," he told Judge Donald W. Schacht.
Nelson also said Brooks, who lived in Kennewick, had convinced him to take his .44-Magnum pistol on the camping trip. "I knew it was dangerous," said Nelson, who instead had wanted to take his rifle. "(Brooks) talked me into it. He wanted to shoot (my pistol.)
"It was a terrible accident. I just wish it hadn't happened."
But the apology didn't impress Brooks' wife, Michelle Brooks, who became distraught, periodically shouting and sobbing when it was her turn to make a statement. "Ken was the best part of my life," she said, speaking through tears directly to Nelson.
"You have destroyed so many lives by your actions."
She told Nelson she wears a pendant with her husband's ashes and what's left behind is a broken, wounded family -- including two young children -- torn apart by grief. "I hate the fact you are still breathing when Kenny's dead," she said.
Nelson, 56, of 2815 E. Melrose St., No. 233, shot Brooks early on the morning of Sept. 13 while the two were at a makeshift campsite about 20 miles east of Walla Walla on Blacksnake Ridge Road. Officials said Nelson contacted them about the shooting around 4:30 that morning after arriving home intoxicated and covered in blood. He said he didn't know how he got home and believed something bad had happened.
Nelson said he and Brooks, 38, were drinking heavily and shooting Nelson's pistol. Deputies then went to the area where they found Brooks' body seated in a camp chair. There was no sign of struggle or any indication there had been problems between the two men, officials said.
An autopsy revealed Brooks died about 3:30 a.m. from a single gunshot wound that severed an artery on the left side of his neck.
Nelson pleaded guilty early this month to a reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter, which accused him of causing Brooks' death with criminal negligence.
Nelson's attorney, William McCool, reminded Schacht on Monday that Brooks had been drinking before he was killed. And by urging Nelson to take his handgun on the trip, Brooks was an initiator or willing participant in his own death, McCool argued.
He added that Nelson doesn't know for sure what happened when Brooks was killed, but claims the two were not target practicing at the time.
Nelson believes the gun went off when he stumbled and fell against the tailgate of a truck, but that could be a recurring dream, McCool conceded.
Nevertheless, McCool said, if they had taken Nelson's rifle, as he had wanted, there is a "significant chance Mr. Brooks would be alive today."
McCool asked that Nelson be ordered to serve a year-and-a-day in prison, below the standard-range term of 21-27 months. But Schacht refused to go along with that request, saying just because Brooks had urged Nelson to take the pistol and was drinking before his death doesn't make him a willing participant.
The prosecution had recommended 21 months, the low end of the range. But Schacht said the feelings of Brooks' family members can't be ignored. Schacht also determined the high end of the range isn't appropriate, either, because Nelson has no criminal history.
"This was a very, very unfortunate incident," Schacht said. "We'll probably never truly know what happened here."
Schacht gave Nelson credit for 13 days he'd served in jail before posting bond and placed him on 18-36 months of community custody, a form of probation, when he's released from prison. The full amount of restitution he will be ordered to pay will be determined later.
Nelson initially was charged with first-degree manslaughter, which alleged he recklessly caused Brooks' death. But the charge was reduced in exchange for his guilty plea. Nelson would have faced 6 1/2-8 1/2 years if convicted of the original charge, in addition to a five-year sentence for a firearm enhancement.
In pleading guilty, Nelson said he wanted to take advantage of the plea agreement.
He wasn't charged with murder because there wasn't proof he intended to kill Brooks.
Terry McConn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8319.