The Illinois Appellate Court has rendered its decision in the case of Sandra Vasquez, upholding her 15-year sentence in the 2007 crash that killed five Oswego teenagers.
In June of 2010, Vasquez was convicted of 16 counts of aggravated driving under the influence and five counts of reckless homicide in the Feb. 2007 crash. Vasquez, then 23, was driving a car at around 1:30 a.m. with eight teens as passengers, all of whom had left a party in Boulder Hill.
The vehicle careened off of Route 31 in Oswego and struck a utility pole. Four of the teens – Matthew Frank, 17; Katherine Merkel, 14; Jessica Nutoni, 15; and Tiffany Urso, 16 – were killed on impact. James McGee, 14, died seven days later. The three other teens, as well as Vasquez herself, were injured in the crash.
Vasquez was later found to have been drinking - her blood alcohol content was estimated at between 0.114 and 0.144 at the time of the accident, according to the appellate opinion.
In a unanimous decision filed Monday, the appellate court unanimously agreed with the Kendall County trial court, and said that Vasquez’ attorney, Kathleen Colton, failed to make the case that the state’s “extraordinary circumstances” law was too vague.
The law could have seen Vasquez receive probation instead of a prison sentence, if she proved that there were “extraordinary circumstances.” Colton had argued during the sentencing that Vasquez should be granted probation, since she had no prior criminal history, and is a single mother of two, and a long prison sentence could have a negative impact on her children.
In the appeal, defense attorneys argued that qualifying circumstances are not spelled out in sufficient detail, and “the statute provides no notice or guidance regarding what a defendant must present to the sentencing court and what standard of proof must be satisfied to warrant probation.”
In the appellate court’s written opinion, Judge Ann Jorgensen gave several reasons why Colton’s argument did not hold up. The phrase “extraordinary circumstances,” she said, is plain and easy to understand: “Extraordinary circumstances are, quite simply, those that are not ordinary,” she wrote. “They are unusual.”
The law, she wrote, provides enough guidance for sentencing judges to determine what is extraordinary enough to require probation. The court also rejected the defense argument that the court abused its discretion when sentencing Vasquez to 15 years in prison, saying that while Vasquez’ circumstances were mitigating, they were not extraordinary.
The appellate court, Jorgensen wrote, “is not unaffected by the many tragic elements before us. However, while this case has to some degree impacted each person it has touched, the fact remains that the five deceased victims and their families have paid the greatest price.
“As the trial court noted at sentencing, there are many alternative decisions that could have been made on the night of the accident but, sadly, were not.”