Vasquez’s attorney appeals for reduced sentence in Oswego crash
By Erika Wurst
Aurora Beacon News, May 15, 2012
ELGIN — The next decade of Sandra Vasquez’s life now rests in the hands of three Second District Appellate Court judges.
On Monday morning, in front of a large audience of Vasquez’s family members and victims, lawyers argued that the woman’s 15-year prison sentence was excessive, and requested a new sentencing hearing.
Vasquez was convicted of aggravated drunken driving and reckless homicide in the 2007 deaths of five Oswego teens.
It could be months before the court announces its decision.
Attorneys for Vasquez are challenging the constitutionality of the 2006 “extraordinary circumstances” law, which could have gotten the 28-year-old Aurora woman probation instead of prison sentence.
Appellate defender Sherry Silver argued that the “ill defined” phrase extraordinary circumstances made it impossible for Vasquez’s defense attorney Kathleen Colton to properly argue her case.
If a “highly intelligent and experienced” attorney like Colton could not understand the legal definition of extraordinary circumstances, how could anyone, she asked.
“It is the court’s responsibility to give the term a definition because the legislator has failed (to),” she said, then asked the judges to find the language unconstitutional and order a new sentencing hearing.
Some attorneys have successfully used the extraordinary circumstances statute at sentencing, citing factors like a defendant’s health, age, community standing, expression of remorse — or a combination of all the above.
In May 2010, Kane County Judge Timothy Sheldon sentenced then 19-year-old Onofrio Lorusso to three years of probation for reckless homicide and aggravated drunken driving in a St. Charles crash that killed one of his passengers and seriously injured two others. Lorusso had a blood-alcohol level of .227, tested positive for marijuana following the crash, and was traveling 77 mph in a 25 mph zone when the vehicle left the road.
The teen could have faced up to 14 years in prison, but taking into consideration the teen’s strong family background, lack of criminal history, age, attendance in school, remorse, and desire to speak out about the dangers of drunken driving, Sheldon decided extraordinary circumstances applied.
In April, Lorusso violated his probation, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
In 2010, Elburn resident Earl Wilkison, 59, was sentenced to four years of probation by a Kane county judge who decided extraordinary circumstances warranted the term. Wilkison had been convicted of reckless homicide and aggravated drunken driving for causing a fatal crash in October 2008. Prosecutors asked that Wilkison spend at least five years in prison. Judge Allen Anderson ruled that the defendant’s clean record, health issues and his contributions to the community were factors that warranted probation.
Prior to Vasquez’s August 2010 sentencing, Colton attempted to make this same case. She cited Vasquez’s lack of criminal history, her compliance since she had been out on bond, and the impact incarceration would have on the single mother’s two children as reasons for a similar sentence of probation.
“The emotional hardship and damage caused if this single, working mother goes to prison will be insurmountable,” Colton told the judge in 2010, before he handed down Vasquez’s sentence. “These are the extraordinary circumstances the legislature is talking about.”
Silver described her client as a good and patient woman who had a minimal criminal background prior to the fatal crash.
“Many of my (DUI) clients have backgrounds loaded with priors,” Silver said.
“How many of your clients have killed five people?” judge Mary Schostok replied.
Judge Ann Jorgensen was quick to add that there were nine people in a car fit for five, and Vasquez was drunk and behind the wheel. She was going more than 20 miles over the speed limit, and had only one headlight when she crashed.
Judge Clint Hull, who presided over Vasquez’s Kendall County trial, found the circumstances surrounding the crash not very extraordinary, and denied Vasquez a sentence of probation.
The constitutionality of the language “extraordinary circumstances” has been argued in the appellate court before, and has always been upheld.
Appellate prosecutor Scott Jacobson said he hopes this panel of judges will decide to do the same.
He said that extraordinary circumstances don’t need to be specifically defined. They
are based upon a judge’s discretion, not a checklist, he said.
“I think extraordinary circumstances speaks for itself. It’s something we’d all be able to know and recognize,” he said. “You don’t need to know where the line is to know someone’s crossed it.”
Family members of the five victims were in also Elgin to hear the arguments. Donna Dwyer, whose 17-year-old son Matthew Frank died in the crash, said the appeal was a waste of time.
“(Vasquez’s) not on trial for being a good or bad person. She’s on trial for what she did,” Dwyer said.
The three appellate judges will issue a written ruling, which could take weeks or months. The could uphold the sentence or send the case back to
Kendall County for a new sentencing hearing.