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Olson: Justice system not ruled by popular opinion

Published: Friday, April 4, 2014 11:43 p.m. CST • Updated: Monday, April 7, 2014 12:38 p.m. CST
Caption
Danielle Guerra - dguerra@shawmedia.com DeKalb County Presiding Judge Robbin Stuckert listens to Assistant State's Attorney Phil Montgomery on Wednesday during Patricia Schmidt's trial.

Police can arrest you and haul you to jail in handcuffs. They can book you and photograph you, take your fingerprints and your bodily fluids. You can be held in jail until you bail out, or sometimes indefinitely. Police can search your home and have your car towed away. They can release your picture and make statements about what you’ve done.

But after all that, a person still is entitled to a day in court, where it is up to the state to prove that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Presiding Judge Robbin Stuckert found that did not happen in the case of Patricia Schmidt, who was acquitted Thursday on charges of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving in a 2011 crash. It was a crash police said she caused, blowing a red light at Route 23 and Peace Road at 70 mph.

It was a crash that took the lives of two 21-year-olds, Timothy Getzelman and Alexis Weber, who showed every indication they were on their way to being people who would make our society better.

Their loss is a tragedy. It is heartbreaking and unfair. It inspires visceral anger, and deep sympathy for their families.

But our justice system isn’t ruled by popular opinion. That is hard to accept at times, as in this case, or when the Supreme Court makes a decision that we find boneheaded, but it’s also a good thing.

Few of us agree with every verdict rendered by judges and juries across America, but the alternative is the mob. Angry mobs, although they resolve cases much faster, are known to render questionable verdicts and mete out unduly harsh and cruel punishments.

Stuckert found that Schmidt was not guilty in part because she had followed her doctors’ instructions about driving despite her seizure condition. She used to drive to her doctor appointments, and that was considered OK.

“I cannot take that out of the equation,” Stuckert said in court. “Isn’t that we expect ourselves to do?”

Schmidt’s acquittal was not popular with many members of our online audience, no surprise given the circumstances. No doubt the judge knew as much in rendering her verdict, reading it out to the people in the courtroom who had lost loved ones.

However, that’s what judges and juries are expected to do: Interpret the law impartially and rationally. Justice is not always about retribution.

In America, we are innocent until we are proven guilty. Those who respect that principle also must respect the verdict rendered Thursday.

But courts are guided by laws, and laws can be changed by the people.

Sometimes it takes a case such as this one, where innocent people are killed, to bring about change. Illinois’ law is not as stringent when it comes to seizure conditions and driving. There is no mandated “seizure-free period” that people with such conditions must wait out before they resume driving. Doctors are not required to report drivers with epilepsy conditions. Yet, as one commenter on Daily-Chronicle.com pointed out, if you’re not wearing your contact lenses when required, you can expect a ticket.

This verdict might have felt like a slap in the face to the friends and families of Tim and Alexis, who waited more than three years for this trial’s conclusion.

Working to change the law in a common sense way could be their next best step to righting the wrong, and gaining some closure.

That, and Schmidt could apologize for what happened that day, something friends and family of the victims said she never has done.

That might help everyone.

Money smart: Few people find the ways that their credit score is computed terribly intriguing – until they try to get a loan and are either turned down or offered an interest rate that’s prohibitively high.

Although those credit card promotions on college campuses might offer a free T-shirt, the card they’re selling might well have a higher APR, annual fee and other penalties than one you might find elsewhere.

People like to say that the stock market is rigged, but the fact is that unless you invest some of your money there, odds are you will never build enough savings to retire.

If Americans in general were more knowledgeable about risk and finances, the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 might not have been quite so severe, either. So many people decided to take home loans with awful terms, or for more money than they could afford to repay. That put them on the clock to refinance or sell, and when home values fell, many walked away with nothing.

Most all of us suffered after that.

In light of all this, it’s great to see the expanding effort to build financial literacy in DeKalb County.

Money Smart Week, a partnership between several local groups, kicks off today. A directory of the events was published in Wednesday’s Daily Chronicle, and also is available online at www.NIU.edu/flc/MoneySmartWeek.

The event has grown from a small-scale effort contained to the Northern Illinois University campus in 2012 into this year’s offering of 60 local events covering a wide range of topics, from generally applicable things like eating healthy on a budget and understanding your credit score, to more specialized topics such as student aid, buying your first home and optimizing retirement income.

Randi Napientek, the assistant director of office of student academic success at NIU, is coordinating the effort, which has been a partnership between local groups, including the DeKalb County Cash Coalition, Kishwaukee United Way, the NIU Financial Sense Committee and Econ Illinois.

Napientek, a longtime DeKalb resident who graduated from DeKalb High School in 2001, credits Ideal Industries Vice President Glenn Hollister for helping to drive the program’s expansion.

“He brought together a group of us on campus, and we just started getting together and talking about stuff,” Napientek said.

In addition to brainstorming different financial literacy topics, they also got together with other organizations with the same goal. The Kishwaukee United Way, which had its own “Smart with Money Week” also is a partner now.

As Kishwaukee United Way Director Dawn Littlefield pointed out at a kickoff event for Smart Money Week on Thursday, this kind of community and campus education is key for people’s well being.

“I think if people learned how to budget early on or how to avoid credit card problems, it would put them in situations where they could best handle their finances,” Littlefield said.

Regardless whether we’re students, learning should be a lifelong endeavor. Learning how to better handle finances and make good investment choices for the future are key areas that it benefits all of us to know. 

Check out the upcoming events this week. If something appeals to you – maybe you’re interested in free tax preparation? – stop by. All sessions are free and open to the public.

“It’s just about getting the community involved,” Napientek said. “Letting the community know that we have resources. We have some fantastic organizations, businesses that are in the DeKalb County area that are here to help, that are experts, that people can go to and get info from.”

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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