Guilty pleas entered in two fatal traffic cases

URBANA – Traffic crashes that result in death do not always rise to the level of a serious felony for the people who are involved, Champaign County's chief prosecutor said Monday.

State's Attorney Julia Rietz commented in the wake of guilty pleas entered in two separate traffic cases that resulted in death.

"There has to be a more purposeful disregard for the safety of others than we have here," Rietz said of the case of Jennifer Stark.

The 19-year-old Urbana woman was downloading ring tones onto her cell phone about 7:15 p.m. Sept. 2 when her car left the road to the right and struck Matthew Wilhelm, 25, from behind as he bicycled north on Illinois 130 in east Urbana.

Mr. Wilhelm earned his master's degree from the University of Illinois in May and had recently moved to Peoria to begin an engineering job with Caterpillar. Having grown up in Champaign, he was back in town visiting friends over the Labor Day weekend when he was hit. He died on Sept. 8 from head injuries.

Stark, who listed an address in the 2000 block of Brownfield Road, Urbana, pleaded guilty Monday before Judge Rich Klaus to improper lane usage. Klaus set sentencing for Nov. 29. The maximum sentence she can receive is a $1,000 fine.

Klaus said he wanted to see a presentence investigation detailing her prior driving convictions – court records show she received two tickets for speeding and one for running a traffic light, all of which she pleaded no contest to and paid the fines – before deciding what her fine should be.

Responding to calls for Stark to be charged with reckless homicide or involuntary manslaughter, Rietz said the facts of the case don't fit the legal requirements for those felonies.

"The mental state for (those crimes) is a willful and wanton disregard for the safety of others. And her actions here don't rise to that level. People drive negligently and cause accidents. Because accidents result in fatalities does not justify charging the driver with a felony," Rietz said.

Last Wednesday, James Fehlberg pleaded guilty to felony failure to report an accident involving the death of a woman who lived on the same street as he.

"If he had just stopped, the only offense he would have been charged with would have been a petty offense," said Rietz, who negotiated the plea agreement with Champaign attorney Mark Lipton.

As it stands, Fehlberg faces up to six years in prison when he is sentenced on Nov. 13 by Klaus.

Fehlberg, 47, who listed an address in the 2500 block of Clifton Drive, Urbana, admitted that after striking Jeanette Griffin on Airport Road in Urbana on Jan. 30, he kept going and didn't contact police.

Ms. Griffin, 45, of 3504 Clifton Drive, Urbana, was walking in the middle of Airport Road about 6:15 p.m. when she was struck and killed. Parts of the car, including a side view mirror, were found in the road.

The next morning, an Urbana police officer found Fehlberg's damaged car in his driveway and arrested him. Fehlberg admitted hitting something but said he believed it was a trash bag, police said.

In that case, Rietz said, other people called police to report that Ms. Griffin was walking in the middle of the road and that they had to swerve to avoid hitting her.

"Any time someone violates a traffic safety law or gives less than their full attention to safe driving, it's more likely an accident is going to result, but that is not recklessness under the law. That's negligence. If people disagree with the law as it is written, they should address their state legislators," she said.

Rietz recently attended a conference with other prosecutors from around the country and learned that other states do have laws for "negligent vehicular homicide that is somewhere in between a petty offense and a felony, to address these situations where somebody dies in a traffic accident."

Rietz said she has spoken with the civil attorney hired by the family of Matt Wilhelm and her victim advocate has spoken with the family.

"They are clearly asking that people use this tragedy as a lesson," Rietz said.

"Sometimes there are traffic accidents and the only crime that fits the facts is a petty offense. They're not as newsworthy because they don't involve a cell phone," she said.

"Around this same time a father came in to complain that his daughter got a ticket while having her iPod phones on. People don't want their individual rights to be infringed upon when it affects them directly," Rietz said.

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