Some court cases strike me as particularly intriguing. Not because they make Court TV, though they might for all I know, but because they involve complex factors in decision making and punishment. One such case in Illinois involved the sentencing of Jeanette Sliwinski yesterday to eight years in prison. Jeanette’s crime was fairly straightforward. She, now 25 years old, got into her auto in July of 2005 after a verbal fight with her mom, and then decided to take her own life. She ran into a stopped car and in the process killed all three occupants, young men on lunch break who were 29, 35 and 39 years-of-age.
Jeanette was initially going to be tried for first-degree murder but the charge could not stick so a lesser degree was sought by the state. She was tried, not by jury but by the bench, and found guilty by Judge Garritt Howard. Most critics testify that this judge is both fair and tough at the same time.
The families of the deceased victims are most unhappy with the verdict. Jeanette has already served two years in a Cook County jail and after two more years she will be able to complete her eight year sentence with good behavior. (She has been a model inmate so far.) Prosecutors wanted a ten-year sentence, the maximum. The judge took into consideration her lack of a criminal record and what has been called "her diminished mental health." Since being in prison Jeanette has been placed on two psychiatric medications that have helped her immensely according to court records.
This case raises two issues. First, Jeanette suffered from a bipolar disorder that led to psychotic episodes. Her doctors had not treated the condition correctly and thus she was very vulnerable to shifts in personality that went untreated medically. For many in America, and in many churches, this means nothing. I disagree. Bipolar conditions are medically proven and regardless of what you think of mental illness the evidence is strong that such a condition impairs reasoning and behavioral responses directly. Accordingly, I believe Jeanette should be shown compassion. Part of the argument for this is established by the fact that she has made great progress in jail while being properly treated medically. In addition she expressed deep remorse at her sentencing. (The family of the victims felt she was "insincere." How can such be judged when you have lost your loved ones in such a tragedy?)
Second, the cry for "justice" from the victims is real and painful. How should the courts respond to such an act? Jeanette will be out of prison at age 27 and three people will never be brought back due to her reckless actions in July of 2005. These family members were deeply distressed yesterday by the verdict and said so to all who would listen to them. They were angry, upset and critical of the court system. Seeking vengeance seems to be the norm in America. I am not sure how a society responds to this problem when they have forgotten that the Judge of all the earth will repay evil for evil and vengeance belongs to God, not to us. I feel deeply for such people but one thing is for sure—harboring anger at Jeanette and the court system will not heal their pain.
The defense argued that this tragedy would never have happened had Jeanette’s doctors done their job properly. Apparently the judge believed that part of the story and believes this young woman needs treatment and another chance at life. Punishing her unduly will not send any particularly positive signal to the culture in general and fostering anger seems to have become a major problem in our system of justice. That’s my view. What do you think?