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Eagan driver to be jailed yearly on date of crash that killed his best friend

Matthew Russell Willis

Over the next 10 years, an Eagan man will check into jail on the anniversary of a car crash he caused by speeding on an Inver Grove Heights roadway, killing his best friend.

Matthew Russell Willis, 26, was ordered Monday in Dakota County District Court to serve a "very unusual" staggered sentence, said County Attorney James Backstrom.

District Judge Kathryn Messerich sentenced Willis to serve 60 days in jail immediately and 30 days beginning each May 10 -- the anniversary of the crash -- starting in 2012 to 2021. The staggered sentence is to remind Willis of the crime he committed, she said.

Willis pleaded guilty earlier to felony criminal vehicular homicide and two counts of criminal vehicular operation causing great bodily harm. He could not remember anything about the month leading up to the crash, said Thomas Bauer, his attorney.

"He got a very fair sentence," Bauer said.

With good behavior, Willis could serve two-thirds of the sentence. In a presentence investigation, Willis was determined to have a low risk of reoffending, Bauer said.

The sentence was a downward departure for criminal vehicular homicide from state sentencing guidelines, which recommend a four-year prison sentence.

Willis also received three prison sentences -- totaling nine years and two months -- that won't have to be served if he completes 10 years of probation. As part of probation, Willis must pay restitution to the victims, speak at victim impact


panels, complete a safe drivers course and have no driving violations. His driver's license also will be suspended for 10 years.

The parents and sister of Willis' best friend, Eric Nardini, 20, who died in the crash, read impact statements at Monday's sentencing. The other two crash victims submitted statements to the court.

Willis apologized to Nardini's family, Backstrom said. Willis told the court Nardini was one of his close friends, that he loved him and that he thinks about the crash all the time.

A staggering sentence "has a profound effect upon people, because they never put this behind them in terms of responsibility," Bauer said. "The intent here is to very much pay tribute to Eric Nardini's death."

Nardini was the front-seat passenger in Willis' BMW when it crashed about 11 a.m. May 10, 2008, along Minnesota 3 south of 82nd Street, the complaint said.

Witnesses told police Willis' vehicle was in the northbound lane when his car crossed into the southbound lane, hitting a Chevrolet SUV, the complaint said. One witness said the BMW was "clearly going too fast and out of control."

Nardini died at the scene from multiple traumatic injuries, the complaint said. Willis had serious injuries and was in a coma for 17 days, Bauer said.

The SUV's driver suffered a traumatic brain injury and other injuries, the complaint said. A passenger in her vehicle also suffered severe injuries.

An investigation determined the BMW was traveling about 75 mph in a 50-mph zone when it hit the SUV, which was traveling about 32 mph, the complaint stated.

The prosecution said the BMW was used for "drift racing" because of its modifications, such as smaller rear tires and a disabled antilock brake system, Backstrom said.

"From our perspective, we argued that this was intentional thrill-seeking behavior that claimed one life and almost claimed two others," he said.