URBANA – Jennifer Stark wiped away tears and nodded that she understood the maximum sentence a Champaign County judge gave her Wednesday for improper lane usage.
The 19-year-old Urbana woman appeared in court, flanked by her parents, to plead guilty to a petty offense and be sentenced for actions that led to the death of Matthew Wilhelm.
The 25-year-old former Champaign resident, a University of Illinois mechanical engineering graduate working for Caterpillar in Peoria, died on Sept. 8 from head injuries he received Sept. 2 when Stark hit him with her car because she was downloading ring tones to her cell phone instead of paying attention to driving.
Mr. Wilhelm was bicycling north on Illinois 130 east of Urbana when he was struck from behind about 7:15 p.m. Stark was so far off the road that she hit Mr. Wilhelm from behind with the driver's side of her car. He was wearing a helmet.
"I can only apply the law I have in front of me, not as I wish it would be," Judge Richard Klaus told Stark and the approximately dozen others who had gathered to see her sentence. They included the parents of Mr. Wilhelm and other friends and relatives of the Wilhelm family who have mobilized forces to try to get the law changed regarding distracted drivers.
"I am appalled by your conduct and the manner in which you have driven in the short time you've had a license," Klaus told Stark, who had three prior convictions since May 2005 one for disregarding a traffic light and two for speeding. The last speeding conviction came about five weeks before she hit Mr. Wilhelm.
State's Attorney Julia Rietz made the call not to lodge any more serious charge than improper lane usage against Stark, saying that the legal definition of recklessness, to sustain reckless homicide or reckless driving, did not fit her actions.
But Rietz argued for the maximum sentence of six months of conditional discharge a form of probation without reporting to an officer a $1,000 fine and traffic safety school.
"This is a tragic case and one which has demonstrated to us there are many things we can't adequately resolve in this building, unfortunately. The law doesn't give us an adequate remedy to address the loss to the Wilhelms and society," she said.
Stark shook her head no when Klaus asked her if she wanted to say anything before being sentenced.
But Gloria Wilhelm, the mother of the victim, was not reticent. She calmly read to Klaus a statement in which she chided the system that allowed Stark to continue driving even though her "irresponsible behavior continued to worsen."
And she took a diplomatic jab at Rietz for her decision not to prosecute Stark for more than a petty offense.
"Julia Rietz said it would be hard to prosecute 'willful and wanton' (behavior) and the driver could have 'no reasonable expectation of a bike on the side of the road,' yet every single time we visited the accident site we saw bikers and joggers in the area. The driver took this path to and from work and had to see others out there. Disregarding the obvious is a total lack of responsibility.
"In addition to a mere fine, we implore you to recommend community service and continued education to improve her driving. She needs more than just to 'live with this the rest of her life.' She can celebrate holidays and birthdays with her family. We can't do this with Matt."
Stark's mother sobbed as she listened to Mrs. Wilhelm continue:
"We have nightmares of Matt's last moments when he was riding way off to the side of the road on a clear beautiful day and was hit with no warning. ... Another person told me they saw the accident scene and it was something no mother should have to witness all for a cell phone ring tone. ... All for a self-indulged driver who has her priorities ridiculously out of order."
After the hearing, Stark went upstairs at the courthouse to make an appointment with the probation office. Her mother told The News-Gazette that Stark didn't want to make any public comments because "she's afraid her words will get twisted."
Stark sent a letter to The News-Gazette that was published in September in which she apologized to the Wilhelm family for what happened and said she took full responsibility for her actions.
"I never meant to do anything like this. I know that no matter what I say or do I can never take back what has happened or undo the hurt and grief I have caused. However, I still wanted to say that I am very sorry," she wrote.