I'm a lawyer, but I've been told on several occasions by one or more of my four sons that I'm not a "real" one. You see, I don't do trials. I help people do wills and estate planning, I help them buy and sell homes, and I believe that I've handled more adoptions and guardianships of children in my 29 years as a lawyer than any other lawyer in the 16th Judicial Circuit -- Kane, DeKalb and Kendall counties.
The closest I've come to defending someone like Sandra Vasquez was being present in Room 201 of the Kane County Judicial Center where speeding and squealing tires and similar traffic offenses are dealt with. As I mentioned, I have four sons -- I've been in Room 201 once or twice (all right -- more like half a dozen to a dozen times). That hardly qualifies me as a criminal defense attorney, though; it simply proves that I'm a dad.
I don't do trials, but I have a good friend who does. She's not only an excellent criminal defense attorney, she's also a wonderful person. Her name is Kathleen Colton, and she has recently gone through a very difficult time. She's the lawyer who defended Vasquez, the driver in a 2007 crash in Oswego that left five teens dead. Because of my friendship with this lawyer, and the notoriety of this matter, I have been following this case with a great deal of interest over these past three years. And since one of my sons is contemplating a career as a trial lawyer, he and I recently spent two afternoons in Room 115 of the Kendall County Courthouse listening intently to lawyers and witnesses and the judge discuss this horrible tragedy. I watched the faces of the jurors and the family members and friends of the five deceased teenagers. And I watched Vasquez and her family and friends. These were two very emotional afternoons for me; I was surprised at the depth of emotion I felt. I found myself fighting back tears on a couple of occasions. This was much different than reading about it in the papers.
Many thoughts came to me as I took it all in. I could feel so vividly the anguish of the parents and families of the five deceased teenagers. What could I possibly say to one of those folks if I came across them in the courthouse halls? Nothing of any consequence, I thought. As much as I wanted to help them in their grief, I found myself dreading the prospect of having to talk with any of them, and I felt ashamed of that.
I thought about Vasquez. I realized that prior to this experience, my ideas about crime and trials and such -- even as a lawyer -- were clearly quite naive. I always assumed that there was the bad guy -- and then there was the victim -- and let's "get" the bad guy and give him what he deserves and do some justice for the victim and the victim's family. But I didn't see any bad guy in Room 115 -- only victims and families and friends of victims. Certainly Vasquez did some things she shouldn't have done -- as did those eight teenagers who were out in the middle of the night and hopped into her car. We all do those sorts of things from time to time. It doesn't make one a bad person. Sadly, in this situation, this combination of mistakes has profoundly altered the lives of dozens of good people forever -- a deep tragedy all the way around.
I thought about the jurors, each of them taking time out of their lives to attend to one of our society's thankless civic duties. They all seemed so appropriately intense as they listened. I felt quite strongly that they were all good people who would do their best to figure out the "right" result here. I thought about how Vasquez and her family would feel toward them if their verdict were guilty, and how the families of the five deceased teenagers might feel toward them if their verdict were otherwise.
I thought about my friend, Colton. I felt sad for her when I heard about the jurors' verdict. She put her heart and soul and all of her exceptional skill and experience into doing something that was vitally important here -- giving the accused a meaningful defense. Sometimes it is difficult to understand how someone like Colton can do what she does for certain particularly nasty criminals. We must keep in mind, however, that our system of justice simply will not work without a certain number of intelligent, caring, hard-working people who are strong enough to take on these sometimes extremely unpopular chores. I'm very proud of my friend. As a fellow lawyer, I congratulate her on a job well done. As a citizen, I thank her for being there to protect my family and me and everyone else when the time might come.
Bill Durrenberger is a Sugar Grove resident and attorney.