FAYETTEVILLE — A man facing charges of first-degree murder in the traffic death of a 4-year-old girl pleaded guilty Monday to five lesser charges as jury selection began in his extraordinary case.
Timothy Blackwell becomes only the second person in North Carolina to stand trial for first-degree murder in a drunken-driving death. In the other known case, Thomas Richard Jones was sentenced to life in prison for an accident that killed two Wake Forest University students in Forsyth County.
Blackwell is charged with killing Megan Dail, 4, in a traffic accident on Feb. 27, 1997. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 45 years in prison. Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson has ruled out the death penalty in the case.
Blackwell was driving a pickup truck that crossed the center line of a north Durham road. It side-swiped an oncoming car driven by Sherry Dail, Megan's mother, then struck a car driven by Megan's father, Gregory Dail, and bearing Megan and two of her brothers, troopers said.
Blackwell pleaded guilty Monday to felonious impaired driving, driving left of center, possession of an open container, driving without a license and possession of drug paraphernalia.
In exchange for the guilty pleas, prosecutors dropped a habitual drunken-driving charge and agreed not to pursue the argument that the crash was premeditated. Blackwell faces up to 52 months in prison on the charges to which he pleaded guilty. Sentencing will come after his murder trial.
Authorities said that in Durham County alone, Blackwell had five prior convictions for impaired driving and 20 for driving with a revoked license.
Prosecutors upgraded a second-degree murder charge they had filed against Blackwell, modeling their case on the Jones case.
Jones had two previous drunken-driving convictions when he broadsided a car in Winston-Salem, killing Maia Witzl and Julie Hansen, 19-year-old sorority sisters. Although Jones was not legally drunk, he had been mixing alcohol and painkillers before the accident.