It was hard for Kathleen Colton to downplay her enthusiasm when she called this week.
The Geneva defense attorney just found out the appeal she filed on behalf of her client, Sandra Vasquez, will be heard by the Second District Appellate Court in oral arguments May 14 in Elgin.
And that means there’s a chance the young Aurora woman, convicted of aggravated DUI and reckless homicide in the 2007 deaths of five Oswego teens, could get her 15-year sentence reduced.
The arguments will be litigated by the appellate defender in front of a panel of three judges on the sentencing portion only of the Vasquez case. The 15-year sentence was handed down by Kendall County Judge Clint Hull in the summer of 2010.
The two-part argument will center on the excessiveness of the sentence; as well as challenge the constitutionality of the “extraordinary circumstances” law because of its vague definition.
The Vasquez case was the first time Colton had argued extraordinary circumstances for aggravated DUI or reckless homicide since the 2006 law took effect.
Some attorneys have successfully used it at sentencing, citing factors like a defendant’s health, age, community standing, expression of remorse — or a combination of all the above. Colton challenged the statute during a pre-sentencing hearing because the law “had no guidelines” and was therefore impossible to argue.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know what the legislature meant by extraordinary circumstances,” Colton had said, questioning whether the circumstances referred to should be applied to her client’s life, or the situation surrounding the crime itself.
Colton is encouraged because only a small percentage of cases filed with the appellate court are granted oral arguments. Vasquez will not be able to attend the hearing, which is open to the public. But spectators will undoubtedly include at least some members of the Vasquez family (her parents could not be reached for comment) and loved ones of the five teenagers who died and the three who survived.
Anthony Urso, grandfather of 16-year-old Tiffany Urso, who was killed when the car Vasquez was driving slammed into a pole along Route 31 in Oswego, plans to be there; as does Donna Dwyer, whose 17-year-old son Matthew Frank also died in the crash.
Five years after the tragedy, both still strongly believe Vasquez got the sentence she deserved.
“If she was truly sorry for what she did, she would accept the sentence she was given,” said Dwyer, who moved from Oswego last year to get away from reminders of the accident that shook up an entire community but did little, she insists, to change the culture of adolescent substance abuse there.
Urso agrees, adding that the tough sentence should remain “as a reminder to others” of the consequences of drinking and driving.
“I think about (Vasquez) a lot,” he said, “every time I read about another drunk driver, another accident.”
Colton says she was encouraged by the fact the appellate defenders picked up a scrapbook of letters and cards from her client’s supporters in the community — including those from the nursing home where Vasquez had worked with dementia patients — and filed it with the appellate court. “It goes to the human part of it,” said Colton, who felt that part was not given enough credence.
She says the panel of judges could send the case back to Kendall County for a new sentencing hearing, or the court could reduce the sentence immediately.
No matter what happens, there’s little doubt the hearing will open either new hope or old wounds for all those involved in this tragedy that still resonates in the Fox Valley.
Says Urso, “It’s like it all happened yesterday.”