Woman who killed 5 Oswego teens in 2007 DUI crash appeals sentence
By Harry Hitzeman
Chicago Daily Herald, May 15, 2012
An Aurora woman in prison for killing five Oswego teens in a 2007 drunken driving crash has appealed her sentence. She argued that a state statute that allows a judge to consider probation in a multiple-fatality DUI crash is unconstitutionally vague.
Sandra Vasquez, 28, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the Feb. 11, 2007, crash that killed Oswego High School students Matthew Frank, 17; Katherine “Katie” Merkel, 14; James McGee, 14; Jessica Nutoni, 15; and Tiffany Urso, 16.
She was trying to give eight teens a ride home from an underage drinking party when she crashed into a telephone pole along Route 31 near River Run Road in Oswego.
Vasquez faced six to 28 years in prison for aggravated DUI and reckless homicide, but probation was an option for the judge if her attorney was able to show “extraordinary circumstances.”
Sherry Silvern, assistant appellate defender, argued to a 2nd District Appellate panel Monday that the state legislature did not define or give any examples of an extraordinary circumstance but placed the burden on a defendant to argue for it.
“There has to be better guidance from the legislature, there has to be better guidance from the courts,” Silvern told the three appellate justices. “We're asking you to give a definition because the legislature has failed.”
At a sentencing hearing in August 2010, defense attorney Kathleen Colton sought to portray Vasquez as a good Samaritan who wanted to help a group of intoxicated, stranded teens who needed a ride. Vasquez, a mother of two, had no prior DUI or criminal arrests. She had two
speeding tickets, and her blood-alcohol level was disputed at trial.
She testified she had three drinks at a family party before going to pick up her younger sister at another location and discovering the underage party there.
“She had a minimal prior (criminal) history,” Silvern said. “Many of our clients have backgrounds that are loaded with previous convictions.”
But Appellate Justice Mary Schostok quickly asked, “How many of these clients killed five people?”
Scott Jacobson, assistant appellate prosecutor, argued that Judge Clint Hull did not abuse his discretion when sentencing Vasquez.
Rather, Jacobson argued, the judge considered all the facts, including the sentencing hearing, where prosecutors show aggravating factors, such as a defendant's past record, and defense attorneys try to show mitigating factors while arguing for a lesser sentence.
“The trial court in this case considered everything,” Jacobson said. “I don't believe this was a decision that was arrived at lightly.”
The appellate panel did not say when it will render its decision, but even if it agrees with Vasquez's argument, Jacobson said it would only mean Vasquez gets a new sentencing hearing and would not undo the guilty verdict against her.
Vasquez must serve 85 percent of her sentence and is due for release in March 2023, when she will be 39.
Donna Dwyer, whose son Matthew was killed, attended the hearing and, like many of the victims' family members and friends, was angry and frustrated to relive the crime again.
“(Vasquez is) not on trial for whether she's a good or bad person. She's on trial for what she did,” said Dwyer, who has since left Oswego.