Court upholds 15-year sentence for Vasquez
By Matt Hanley email@example.com June 6, 2012 12:04PM
Updated: August 28, 2012 3:01PM
Sandra Vasquez will spend the next 11 years in prison. The state appellate defender’s office said it will not take Vasquez’s bid for a shorter sentence to the Illinois Supreme Court, after the appellate court upheld her sentence in the 2007 crash that killed five Oswego teens.
In a unanimous opinion released Wednesday, Second District Appellate Judge Ann Jorgensen wrote that Vasquez’s 15-year sentence was appropriate. In May, attorneys for Vasquez argued that the 2006 “extraordinary circumstances” law — which could have gotten the 28-year-old Aurora woman probation instead of prison — was too vague.
During the early morning hours of Feb. 11, 2007, Vasquez was driving a car filled with eight teenagers when it veered off the road on Route 31 in Oswego and hit a utility pole. Five teens died in the crash: Matthew Frank, 17; Katherine Merkel, 14; Tiffany Urso, 16; Jessica, Nutoni, 15; and James McGee, 14.
Vasquez was convicted of aggravated drunken driving and reckless homicide. Kendall County Judge Clint Hull sentenced Vasquez to 15 years. She has to serve at least 85 percent of that sentence.
Defense attorney Kathleen Colton argued Vasquez should get probation because of the extraordinary circumstances in her life and in the facts of the case. Colton said Vasquez has two young children, she has virtually no criminal history, she was in compliance with conditions of bond and her absence will have a dramatic impact on her family’s life. Also, Colton pointed out that Vasquez was trying to help the eight teens — many who were drunk or high — get home from a party. She did not know most of the kids before they piled into her four-door Infiniti sedan.
Other local defendants have received probation in fatal DUI cases: In May 2010, a Kane County judge sentenced a 19-year-old man to probation for a drunken driving crash that killed a passenger in St. Charles. The teen had a blood alcohol level of .227, marijuana in his system and was driving 77 mph. The judge said extraordinary circumstances applied because of the teen’s strong family background, lack of criminal history, age, attendance in school and remorse.
In May, appellate defender Shelly Silvern argued that the extraordinary circumstances was so vague, it made it impossible for Colton to properly argue her case. But the appellate court said Hull gave considerable thought to Vasquez’s circumstances.
“It is clear to this court that the trial judge wrestled with the sentencing decision,” Jorgensen wrote. “This was apparent at both the time of sentencing and post sentencing, where the judge acknowledged that he thought ‘very much’ about how the sentence would affect defendant’s children and that she will miss most of their childhoods. ... While this case has to some degree impacted each person it has touched, the fact remains that the five deceased victims and their families have paid the greatest price.”
The appellate court said the broad nature of the extraordinary circumstances law favors defendants because judges do not have to stick to a narrow set of exceptions.
“Extraordinary circumstances are, quite simply, those that are not ordinary,” Jorgensen wrote. “They are unusual. ... The phrase is sufficiently clear so that persons of common intelligence are not required to guess at its meaning.”
According to Silvern, the Fourth and Fifth appellate districts have also recently upheld challenges to the extraordinary circumstances law. Both decisions were cited in the 28-page Vasquez opinion. Silvern said those rulings influenced her office’s decision not to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. She called the chances of the Supreme Court taking the case “less than minimal.”
Silvern and Colton said they were very disappointed, but not surprised by the decision.
Victims’ families respond
“I’m befuddled why anyone would not see this as an extraordinary case,” Colton said. “She was trying to do the right thing. If it’s not a highly unusual set of events ... I don’t know what is.”
Colton was not sure whether Vasquez, who is in the Lincoln Correctional Center, was aware of the decision Wednesday.
The ruling did not come as a surprise to the victims’ families. Donna Dwyer, whose 17-year-old son Matthew Frank died in the crash, said Wednesday she felt confident the appellate court would uphold the sentencing, especially after listening to the oral arguments last month.
Dwyer said she felt sorry for Vasquez’s parents because the appeals were only “selling them false dreams,” she said.
Anthony Urso, grandfather of 16-year-old crash victim Tiffany Urso, also expected this outcome.
“I’m glad they made this decision. Lessons have to be learned,” he said.
Dwyer said despite a temporary setback she and her family experienced because of the appeal, time has tempered her emotional vulnerability.
“Whichever way it worked out, I was at peace,” she said. “It’s not in my hands anymore.”
Beacon-News columnist Denise Crosby contributed to this story.