Why Does a CTA Death Lead to 32 Years in Jail While a Fatal DUI Merits None?

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DUI victim Annabella "Bella" Loerop.

In the spring of 2011, there were two fatalities with several parallels. In each case a teenage boy who was doing something illegal collided with an innocent female victim, killing her. One perpetrator was sentenced to more than three decades in prison; the other received no jail time at all. A difference between the cases, which may have played a role in the wildly disparate consequences of their actions, was that while the first teen was in a CTA station, the second was behind the wheel of a car.

On the afternoon of March 28, 2011, Prince Watson, 17, grabbed an iPhone from a passenger on a Brown Line car as it arrived at the Fullerton stop, according to the Tribune. As he was fleeing the scene through the crowded station, he collided with Sally Katona-King, 68, pushing her down a flight of stairs; she suffered multiple injuries and died the next day.

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Sally Katona-King, victim in the CTA case.

That August, after he was apprehended during another attempted smartphone theft, Watson was charged with first-degree murder and robbery. In April of this year he pleaded guilty to the charges and apologized to Katona-King’s family for causing her death, saying he had believed stealing phones was the quickest way to support himself without hurting others. Judge James Linn sentenced him to 32 years in jail.

A few weeks after Watson collided with Katona-King, on the afternoon of May 9, 2011, Deandre Wolfe, 16, was speeding east on 175th Street in suburban Tinley Park, with marjuana in his system, police said. Four-year-old Annabella “Bella” Loerop was playing front of her family’s home and ran into the street after a basketball when Wolfe struck and killed her, according to the Tribune. She was pronounced dead 90 minutes later.

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The crash site in Tinley Park. Photo: Tinley Park Patch

Wolfe was charged with reckless homicide and aggravated DUI. On June 13 he pleaded guilty to the latter charge. Last week the Trib reported Judge John Hynes sentenced the teen to a two years of probation, plus a $1,989 fine. Wolfe must also perform 480 hours of community service.

It’s clear that Watson deserved a stiffer penalty than Wolfe, since he collided with his victim while committing a robbery, failed to render aid, and continued stealing phones after the incident. What’s not obvious is why Watson should spend much of his adult life in prison while the driver’s penalty for killing someone is a mere speed bump. Just like his peer, Wolfe never intended to hurt anyone, but by speeding while under-the-influence he was behaving extremely recklessly.

While it wasn’t Wolfe’s fault that a little girl ran into the road, he should have been held responsible for the fact he was too impaired and/or driving too fast to avert a fatal crash. That he received only a slap on the wrist suggests that Judge Hynes identified with a fellow motorist and viewed this entirely avoidable death as a tragic “accident.”

  • iskandr

    Correct on the disproportionality issue. IMHO Watson should be executed–he is wasting oxygen and worse increasing the burden of warehousing in the (non) correction system which is detrimental to our society in itself. As to Wolfe, first a minimum of 5 years, and another 20 of NO DRIVING.

  • CL

    I’ve always been confused at why Watson’s attorney advised him to plead guilty to first degree murder, especially at age 17. I thought the definition required the murder to be premeditated and intentional. I don’t think a rich, white defendant would have taken that deal. He deserved a hefty prison sentence, yes, but I think 32 years is excessive.

    Vehicle deaths are such a tricky issue because you have a driver who didn’t mean to kill anyone. That’s the scary thing about driving, how a split second mistake or absentminded moment (something all humans experience) can lead to such horrible consequences. I think it’s good to err on the side of not giving drivers extreme sentences if they weren’t breaking the law when the accident occurred. Reckless behavior, however, like being drunk, speeding, or breaking traffic laws is different because it’s a reckless disregard for others’ lives. So, I would have given Wolfe a few years in prison (less than I’d give an adult because he was a teenager).

  • Suspicious of Penal System

    That’s a bit of an oversimplification, don’t you think?

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that neither one received an appropriate sentence? 32 years in federal prison for bumping into someone on the stairs during the commission of a robbery that resulted in that persons death. At 17?

    I’m not saying that doesn’t deserve a stiff penalty, but come on…

    As for Wolfe, I’m no expert, but I would like to know how it was determined that he was DUI for marijuana. My understanding is that comes from a blood test, and marijuana stays in the system for much longer than alcohol, cocaine etc. I’d want to know for certain that Wolfe hadn’t for example, gotten high the night before, slept it off and was no longer under the influence, but tested positive for marijuana resulting in the DUI, when he may have in fact been for all intents and purposes sober, and the crash was little more than the result of a an unattended child running out in front of a vehicle. There’s no mention of the speed Wolfe was travelling at either, that makes a big difference as well.

    Our justice system and especially our penal system are trash bins into which we throw human beings, for profit. I’m not going to jump on a bandwagon that says everyone who does something that results in the death of another person deserves to spend decades in a broken, cruel and corrupt penal system, (especially minors), just because they were driving a car, or tested positive for marijuana, or were commiting some other relatively minor crime in the process.

    I’m not saying they should just walk free, but this still comes off as a bit of a false dichotimy.

  • #outofthedarkages

    And all thieves shall have their hands cut off. And those lusting after their neighbors wife shall have their eyes gouged out. And public hangings for horse thieves…

  • #outofthedarkages

    Excellent point about the plea. Dollars to donuts, Watson was a young black male with no financial resources, probably relying on a public defender. The plea system for those accused of violent crimes in those scenarios is a travesty. They are routinely ramrodded into pleading guilty to charges that are often inappropriate simply to clear out P.D.’s case loads, with no real understanding of what they are getting themselves into, resulting in overly stiff sentences. Meanwhile white defendants, especially those with any financial means, are able to avail themselves of decent representation and obtain much more reasonable outcomes.

  • #outofthedarkages

    Also, the question of 1st degree murder comes from (I think) the fact that the death resulted from the commission of another crime, pre-meditated and intentional or not. The classic scenario is the convenience store stickup that goes bad and the guy who startles the thief coming back from the beer aisle gets shot. The thief didn’t go in there with the intent of killing the shopper, but nonetheless…

    In this case a better example migh be the pedestrian who gets run over by the getaway car after the bank robbery. But even still, 32 years…for a 17 year old, that’s nuts.

  • Mike McCune

    Nah. Public hangings for bike thieves!

  • According to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, Wolfe was speeding through a school zone before the crash and had traces of marijuana in his system: http://www.triblocal.com/tinley-park/2011/09/06/teen-indicted-in-crash-that-killed-girl-4/ I’ve edited the post to reflect this info.

    I agree that while Wolfe’s sentence was too lenient, Watson’s was way too severe.

  • CL

    Interesting – I looked it up after reading your comment, and I think that must be the reason. They must have considered the iPhone snatching a “forcible felony.”

    But yeah, 32 years is ridiculous.

  • I think the model used in the Netherlands works well: unless it can be proven that a pedestrian or bicyclist was to blame for a crash, the driver is held responsible. This encourages motorists to drive safely and contributes to the country’s low traffic fatality rate.

  • CL

    Oh I agree that drivers are responsible for not hitting people in their path, even if they didn’t break the law — but I think relatively lenient sentences (years verses decades) can be given when the person wasn’t driving recklessly and it was truly an accident.

  • If a person truly isn’t driving recklessly and something genuinely beyond their control happens that leads to a fatality, then they shouldn’t be penalized at all, but the burden of proof should be on the driver.

    If Wolfe had been going 20 mph and had been sober I wouldn’t have blamed him for this fatality, but then the fatality probably wouldn’t have happened, because when a person is struck by a car going only 20 mph, they almost always survive. When they’re struck by someone going 40 mph, which was probably closer to his speed, they almost always die.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not just the judge’s fault, it’s the ASA’s fault for taking a plea to only the DUI charge instead of going to trial for the reckless homicide charge.

  • Thanks for the input.

  • Melaine Andrews

    John Greenfield, the parents request a reduced sentence for Wolfe, because Bella’s father works for the juvenile system and did not believe that prison time would benefit Wolfe… Here is a link to the article in The Chicago Tribune http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-07-02/news/ct-met-fatal-dui-forgiveness-20130702_1_prison-time-young-life-one-life that explains the family’s healing process.

  • Thanks for the link; that’s a fascinating story. I recently learned about the concept of “restorative justice” through this New York Times article:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/magazine/can-forgiveness-play-a-role-in-criminal-justice.html?pagewanted=all

  • CL

    That was a very interesting and moving story. I don’t believe violent crime victims should have a say in sentencing (whether they’re arguing for it to be harsh or lenient) — but since prosecutors do take families’ feelings into account, it’s amazing when people like Bella’s parents are able to be forgiving.

  • SPEAKUP

    I actually know Deandre very personally and have a lot more info on this incident than any that is provided. DeAndre actually was proven to not have speeding by an accident re constructionist but they were not able to determine the actual
    speed that is why the reckless homicide was dropped. The responding officer to the scene spoke to and examined deandre and said there were no signs that he had been impaired at all that day and there was no odor from the vehicle also the children were not being supervised by any adult in the house at the time of the incident but of course they dont include that in the newspaper.Illinois law requires that if an illegal substance is found in your system at the time of a fatal accident you are the cause no matter what and jury would have had found him guilty that is why he took the plea. Both families been through a tragic event especially losing a litte girl. But when it comes to the legal side of this and our legal system in illinois I still know this young man very well and the legal aspect has had major effects on his future and emotional, physical toll on him.The kid hadnt smoke for a week before this accident so all these comments talking about their forgiveness as someone who was very close to this situation and those involved he needs NO forgivness from any one he commited no crime that day.THE only reason he was given any blaim for this is because of the cannabis in his system which last in your system for 30 days. I posted this because i felt like people needed to hear how alot of our laws and really screw people lives up a who who are just put in messed up situation AND more importantly so people can see the other cause all the news wants tho show and report and the little white girl and the drug smoking speeding black kid, I have more input and things to say on this subject but most of these comments are old so i dont think many will see but if you do hopefull you understand the my point. YOU ALL ARE COMPARING A KID WHO COMMITED A CRIME TO A KID WHO HAD SMALL AMOUNT OF CANNBIS IN HIS SYSTEM THAT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ACCIDENT THAT OCCURD.

  • SPEAKUP

    I know this an old story but Deandre is also a young black male the same age also with a black lawyer

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