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Drunken driving accident that killed 5 Oswego teens back in court
By Clifford Ward
Special to the Tribune

The tragic case of a drunken driving accident that killed five Oswego teens in 2007 will be back in a courtroom this week, possibly as a judicial test of language that allows judges to impose probation in certain felony DUI cases.

The Second Appellate Court District in Elgin has asked to hear oral arguments Monday on an appeal filed on behalf of Sandra Vasquez, the Aurora woman who was convicted of aggravated DUI and other charges and is now serving a 15-year prison sentence.

Vasquez, then 23, lost control of her sedan just past 2 a.m. on Feb. 11, 2007, as she was ferrying a carload of young people from a party in Montgomery. Authorities said Vasquez was under the influence and driving more than 70 miles an hour south on Illinois Route 31 when she veered across a lane of traffic and struck a light pole.

The crash killed four teens instantly, and a fifth died eight days later.

The appeal asks the higher court to find that the 15-year prison sentence imposed on Vasquez was excessive given her lack of criminal history. The motion, which will be argued by the appellate defender's office, also asks the court to overturn the sentence based on what it says is unconstitutionally vague language in the state's aggravated DUI law.

When the state revamped the law, it included language setting the sentencing range in multi-fatality cases like Vasquez's from three to 28 years in prison. But the statue also contains language that says judges can give probation in cases where "extraordinary circumstances" exist. But the law does not spell out what those circumstances may be.

"You don't know whether you are supposed to argue the circumstances of the case, the circumstances of the person's character, or a combination thereof," said attorney Kathleen Colton, who represented Vasquez at trial. "How does the judge even know?"

At Vasquez's sentencing hearing in 2010, Colton argued that Vasquez's circumstances – her lack of criminal record and her work with dementia patients – were extraordinary, though Judge Clint Hull decided on a 15-year term.

A better definition of "extraordinary circumstances," Colton said, could have led to a shorter sentence, or maybe even probation, for Vasquez. She hopes the appellate court reduces Vaquez's sentence, or, barring that, declares the law unconstitutional, which could eventually result in a new sentencing hearing.

Colton said she is encouraged the appeals court asked to hear oral arguments. Often, an appellate court will make its ruling based solely on trial transcripts and the written motions of the parties involved. Colton is interpreting the "live" appearance as a sign that the court has a more-than-passing curiosity over the issues highlighted Vasquez's appeal.

"Obviously, something sparked their interest," Colton said.

Lenny Mandell, associate dean of the Northern Illinois University School of Law, thinks the appellate panel is probably more interested in the extraordinary circumstances provision. It's less likely, he said, they are considering that the trial judge's sentence, which was in the middle range of possible prison time, was excessive.

"Judges are usually reluctant to overturn another judge's discretionary decisions," Mandell said.

Two other Illinois appellate courts have held that the "extraordinary circumstances" language passes constitutional muster, the latest opinion coming on May 2. In that case, the 5th appellate court upheld a four-year sentence on a fatality DUI accident in Williamson County.

"While the term is not specifically defined, the intent of the legislature was to grant deference to the trial court," the appeals court held in its opinion.

Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis, who asked that Vasquez receive a 24-year prison term, said he thinks both the sentence and the "extraordinary" language, which he said gives judges some flexibility, will be upheld.

Brenda Merkel of Oswego, whose 14-year-old daughter, Katherine, was killed in the crash, said Vasquez has her prayers and forgiveness but should not receive a reduced prison term.

"I think she was given a fair sentence, considering the number of children that were killed," said Merkel.

One day, she noted, Vasquez will leave prison and be reunited with her children, something that will never be possible for families of the dead victims