Jury quickly acquits Vincent man in drug case

Photo by Michael Kelly Ryan Nichols and his attorney, George Cosenza, wait for the jury’s verdict to be read Thursday afternoon in Washington County Common Pleas Court. Nichols was found not guilty on three allegations involving drug possession and trafficking and evidence tampering at the end of the two-day trial.

MARIETTA — At the last minute Thursday, a Vincent man decided to risk taking the stand in his own defense in a trial on drug charges, disputing several details in the state’s account of his arrest in early 2016.

The five-woman, seven-man jury in Washington County Common Pleas Court then took an hour to find Ryan Nichols not guilty on charges of drug possession, drug trafficking and evidence tampering.

The verdict was read out just before 5 p.m. Thursday at the end of the trial’s second day.

Nichols, 41, had been arrested in the early morning of Feb. 1, 2016, when Washington County Sheriff’s Office deputy Spencer McPeek was dispatched to investigate a report of an apparently disabled vehicle intruding onto the roadway on Congress Road in Belpre Township. McPeek found Nichols in the driver’s seat slumped across the console and apparently asleep.

The accounts of what happened next diverged in court testimony Wednesday and Thursday. McPeek, who had propped his cell phone on the dashboard of his cruiser and videotaped the first 30 minutes or so of the arrest process, said he saw a baggie protruding from Nichols pocket while he was seated in his Dodge pickup but didn’t find it after taking Nichols to the back of the truck and patting him down.

McPeek said he and his supervisor, Lt. Jason Norman, found a baggie containing more than 30 grams of what was later determined to be meth in the bed of the truck by the tailgate and decided to arrest Nichols.

Nichols took the stand as the only defense witness on the second day of the trial after a scheduled witness, Michael Cain, failed to appear. Defense attorney George Cosenza had just told Judge Randall Burnworth that his client had decided not to testify when Nichols changed his mind. The decision meant that the jury would be permitted to hear that Nichols had previously been convicted of meth manufacturing and served three years in prison for it, having been released in 2013.

Nichols, under questioning by Consenza, told the jury that his time in prison had persuaded him to change his life, and he now runs a construction company that includes a partner and a few employees. The meth discovered in the truck, he said, was not his.

“I went through the programming, did my time, came out and now I’m a productive citizen,” he said, adding that his crew does entry door installations for Lowe’s and has installed more than 300 of them in the past year.

Nichols said McPeek might have mistaken a package of cigarettes in his pocket for a baggie, an assertion McPeek, who is now a detective, disputed when called as a rebuttal witness.

“It was not cigarettes, that is not possible,” he said.

McPeek and Norman had testified that Nichols attempted to escape by running away while they were arresting him, but Nichols also took issue with the state’s account of his arrest, saying he ran away after he heard Norman tell McPeek to use a Taser on him. McPeek said he only threatened to use a Taser while chasing Nichols up a hill near the truck.

Nichols said Norman ran into him in a department SUV; McPeek said Nichols was sliding down a hill and ran into the vehicle where it was parked.

Cosenza, in his closing statement, told the jury that the state had failed to connect the bag of meth to Nichols other than establishing it was found in a vehicle that had been used by several other people in the previous two days. He noted that the bag had not been fingerprinted and argued that if the state had failed to prove possession, the trafficking and evidence tampering charges could not be supported.

Prosecutor Kevin Rings, in his closings, urged the jury to question Nichols’ account of events.

“Which version of events is more believable, more credible, more reasonable?” he asked.

Citing Nichols’ statement that he was threatened with a Taser when there was no previous resistance or trouble, Rings said, “That did not happen, that is a lie … it’s completely incredible, not believable. And if you don’t believe that, why believe they weren’t his drugs?”

Rings also attacked Nichols’ account of having established a respectable life.

“He said he did his time, rehabilitated, started a business … and began hanging out with people who hid thousands of dollars worth of drugs in his truck?”

Cosenza and his client embraced when the verdict was read, and Nichols walked a few feet and threw up his hands.

“I’m thrilled with the verdict, and I thank the jury,” Cosenza said afterward.

Rings said he had no comment.

Burnworth ordered the state to return Nichols’ wallet and $1,394 in cash seized during his arrest.

He also freed Nichols on a personal recognizance bond related to a breach of recognizance charge and the state noted that Nichols is the subject of an active warrant on a misdemeanor charge in West Virginia.