Duchnowski: A trial almost three years in the making
The third anniversary of the crash that killed a young local couple likely will come and go before the criminal case involving the driver accused of causing it is resolved.
Patricia Schmidt, who is accused of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving in the Feb. 21, 2011, crash that killed Timothy Getzelman and Alexis Weber, is scheduled for a two-part trial beginning next week. Since Schmidt asked a judge, rather than a jury, to decide her fate, Judge Robbin Stuckert and the attorneys have set aside Monday through Wednesday, as well as March 3 through March 5, for the trial.
If you’re Schmidt’s attorney, you might think you’ve already won much of the battle: In September, prosecutors dropped the more serious charges of aggravated driving under the influence of prescription drugs, which carried a potential prison term between 6 and 28 years. The remaining charges of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving are both probationable; despite including the word “homicide,” reckless homicide is punishable by no more than five years in prison.
If you’re a prosecutor, you likely are preparing for the rigors of a trial – the evidence, the witnesses, the details of the statutes. You won’t have jurors’ heartstrings to tug, but you probably are thinking a bit about the elusive notion of justice: what’s fair to Schmidt, what’s fair to Getzelman and Weber and their families, what best protects society and what outcome most aligns with past cases.
The average DeKalb County resident, on the other hand, might be wondering how anyone can think anything is fair about this situation. It’s not: Two young people who were, by all the accounts I’ve seen, smart, beautiful and full of promise lost their lives, and Schmidt’s own future has been in limbo for three years.
But as you read news accounts of the trial, I’d encourage you to keep a few things in mind.
First, the trial really is about Schmidt and her actions, not the lives that were lost. Getzelman, 21, of Sycamore, and Weber, 21, of Maple Park, were traveling east on Peace Road in Sycamore when Schmidt, driving south on North Main Street, struck Getzelman’s vehicle on the driver’s side, authorities said.
Witnesses told police Getzelman had the right of way, and later authorities said Schmidt had several prescription drugs in her system at the time of the crash.
The law says a person commits reckless homicide if they No. 1: unintentionally kill someone; No. 2: that actions that caused death were performed recklessly, and No. 3: the actions that caused the death were likely to cause death or bodily harm to begin with. The law seems straight-forward enough, but we’ll have to see what evidence and arguments are made at the trial.
The second thing to keep in mind is that DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack dropped the more serious charges his predecessor Clay Campbell pursued. Schmack has said he dropped the charges alleging she was under the influence of prescription drugs because he didn’t think prosecutors could prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. Granted, there is a significant difference between the “probable cause” standard involved in charging someone with a crime and the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required to convict them.
But dropping the charges means they won’t be aired in open court: Schmack, not a judge or a jury, decided Schmidt wasn’t guilty of the charges and used his power as state’s attorney to eliminate the possibility she’d be convicted of them.
I’d encourage voters to watch the evidence that comes out at trial, watch what other cases Schmack chooses to prosecute, and think about how you want the county’s top legal official to manage his power.
You may remember Schmack campaigned in 2012 on the slogan, “To do the job right.”
On his campaign website, which was still live Tuesday, he described how he viewed the job of state’s attorney. When it came to criminal prosecutions, he said: “Within this limited area, an Illinois State’s Attorney wields virtually unchecked power, exercising total discretion regarding whether or not someone is charged with a crime, and whether or not the prosecution proceeds or is terminated. With vast power comes vast responsibility, but the State’s Attorney answers to no one but the voters in this area, except for the ethical obligation to ‘seek justice, not merely to convict.’ ”
One case shouldn’t make or break a political career, but voters should watch major cases, like Schmidt’s, so they’ll be prepared in two years or so to decide if Schmack really has done his job right.
• Jillian Duchnowski is the Daily Chronicle’s news editor. Reach her at 815-756-4841, ext. 2221, or email email@example.com.