Distracted driver in fatal crash sentenced to jail, probation

Distracted driver in fatal crash sentenced to jail, probation

URBANA — A Mattoon man who admitted his distracted driving on a crowded interstate led to the death of a Camargo girl a year ago has been sentenced to 30 months of probation and six months in the county jail.

But whether Steven Kruse, 38, of Mattoon, actually serves the jail portion of his sentence behind bars or in his home has yet to be decided.

Kruse pleaded guilty Thursday to aggravated unlawful use of an electronic communication device, a Class 4 felony, before Champaign County Judge Adam Dill in connection with the June 8, 2017, death of Caitlin Conner, 10.

"I believe it is within the court's authority to approve or disapprove electronic home detention in this case," said Dill, who continued the hearing to Aug. 24 so that Kruse's attorney, Matt Lee, could present evidence to persuade the judge why his client should get home detention.

Matt Conner, the father of Caitlin Conner, let the judge know in an eloquently-worded victim impact statement that took him 15 minutes to read that the family strongly objects to Kruse serving his sentence at home.

"I think it's a joke. It's insulting to us, the family, our friends, the community," he said after the hearing of the potential for Kruse to enjoy "his television, his bed and his family" during the sentence. "I think he needs to endure more than he has."

Also injured in the crash on Interstate 57 near I-74 that afternoon were Conner's other daughter, Lily Lawrence, 14, and his mother, Debra Conner, 59, of Mattoon.

Kruse admitted that he was traveling south in his Jeep when his cellphone dinged and he went to retrieve it to open it. When he looked up, he could not stop in time to avoid running into the back of Debra Conner's Chevrolet Cobalt, crushing the rear of it and forcing it into a semitrailer-tractor truck in front of it. They were stopped in traffic in a construction zone.

Caitlin was in the back seat. Lily was in the front with her grandmother, who was driving.

Lee said the home-confinement sentence would allow his client to continue to work so he can support his family.

While acknowledging the horrific loss that the Conners have suffered, Lee said his client also feels the pain of his actions daily.

"That loss will be felt by them every day the rest of their life. It's a horrible tragedy and a mistake, selfish in some sense. But it wasn't an evil thing. Probably 90 percent of people in this country have done it in their lives," Lee said.

"Steven Kruse is the last guy who's ever going to text while driving again," said Lee, expressing concern that Kruse might lose his job if he has to serve six months behind bars.

Assistant State's Attorney Victoria Dedman said the state had no position on whether Kruse served the sentence in jail or on home detention. She said it's up to the sheriff to decide how such sentences are carried out.

Dill responded that he felt he had the "final authority" on that question even though Kruse was found eligible for the program.

Kruse was also ordered to pay fines, fees and costs in the neighborhood of $1,100.

Dedman said Kruse was convicted in 2010 in Effingham County of driving under the influence but successfully completed a period of court supervision.

In return for Kruse's plea, the state dismissed other charges of reckless homicide as to Caitlin, and aggravated reckless driving and aggravated unlawful use of an electronic communication device pertaining to her grandmother and sister.

Debra Conner sustained multiple fractures, as well as a head injury that continues to plague her ability to think clearly and communicate. Lily Lawrence, Caitlin's sister, sustained a broken leg.

Kruse is the first person in Champaign County to be convicted of the charge of distracted driving that leads to a death. It became law in July 2014 and carries a maximum period of probation of 30 months and a potential prison term of between one and three years.

State's Attorney Julia Rietz called the law "untested, particularly when it comes to the definition of 'use' of the electronic communication device."

"Our goal was to provide certainty to the Conner family and give them the opportunity to make their statement to the court and to the public, to have Mr. Kruse take responsibility for Caitlin's entirely preventable, tragic death, and to provide an avenue to educate the public on the very real danger created by distracted driving, particularly when the distraction is caused by electronic communication devices."

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