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Black's sentence cut to 9 years in fatal crash

Published: Thursday, April 24, 2014 11:51 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, April 25, 2014 12:55 a.m. CDT
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ST. CHARLES – The judge who reduced Benjamin Black’s sentence by three years Thursday said he erred by twice considering the 29-year-old caused serious physical harm when issuing the original sentence.

Kane County Judge James Hallock reduced Black’s sentence from 12 to nine years for driving with heroin in his system during the February 2013 crash that killed 11-year-old Matthew Ranken of Sycamore.

The revised sentence gives Black 353 days’ credit for time served, and includes two years’ probation upon his release. He must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence, and could complete his sentence in less than seven years. Black also faces felony theft charges in DeKalb County in an unrelated incident that occurred after the crash.

“The judge ruled correctly and admitted his error,” said D.J. Tegeler, Black’s attorney. “I truly believe he accidentally ruled on an improper factor. Mr. Black is pleased with today’s decision, but still has problems realizing the harm he has caused.”

The sentencing range Black faced for aggravated driving under the influence – three to 14 years in prison – was based on the crash causing a death, so it should not have been considered a second time in sentencing, Black listed as factor No. 1 in the appeal.

“The court never likes to say ‘plain error,’ especially when they are speaking about themselves, but having an opportunity to review the case law, it was plain error to rely on factor No. 1,” Hallock said. “The court at this time finds that the original sentence wrongfully placed some emphasis, maybe not as much as Mr. Tegeler believes, but some emphasis on that factor No. 1, including the death of the victim.”

Matthew’s mother, Tonda Ranken, was visibly upset and broke down as she left the courtroom. She declined to speak after the hearing.

Tegeler said Black still struggles with the crash he caused and its aftermath.

“He still has trouble forgiving himself for what has occurred,” he said.

Black pleaded guilty in November to two counts of aggravated driving under the influence in connection with the crash.

He was driving a Ford Expedition near the intersection of Route 64 and Peplow Road in Kane County when he crashed into the back of a Chevrolet Cavalier, in which Matthew and Teale Noble were passengers. Noble, now 19, of Sycamore, was injured.

Samples of Black’s blood and urine taken after the crash tested positive for heroin metabolites and alprazolam, the generic name for Xanax, a prescription drug used to treat anxiety disorders, authorities said.

In the Dowding case cited during the appeal, it was found that the court improperly sentenced the defendant on aggravated DUI charges by considering the first aggravating factor of death or great bodily harm.

“It’s a case virtually one point with this one,” Tegeler said during the hearing. “I’m asking this court, based upon the Dowding decision, to reconsider its decision of 12 years, striking the aggravating factor number one of causing death or great bodily harm, as that is apparent in the charge here, and reconsider and reduce my client’s sentence.”

Hallock agreed.

“The death of the victim was actually built in to the nature of the charge for which the defendant pleaded guilty, and after having reviewed my notes, and reviewed the statute and having the opportunity to consider the Dowding [case], at this time we’ll resentence the defendant,” Hallock said.

Kane County Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Cullen suggested a sentence at the upper end of the range during the original sentencing.

He said Thursday that if Hallock sentenced Black to 12 years because a person died, that it is something the judge has to consider, and to reduce the sentence appropriately.

“You never know what to expect,” Cullen said of the reduced sentence. “The judge articulated his points, and I respect the difficult decision he had to make.”

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