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? 

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  1. Steve Scott November 28, 2007 at 3:00 am

    John, I agree with you that this case is complex, with many factors. What I think also is a problem with our culture is a strong desire for a “one size fits all” system of justice. But the biggest problem of all, in my mind, is the jail time.
    Incarceration, I believe, is quite unbiblical as a form of punishment for evil. The bible is clear that restitution and restoration are what are required by God. How can somebody repay their victims when their only means of doing so (i.e. working to earn a paycheck to make the payoff) is taken away from them? When the state incarcerates somebody, it is saying in essence, “You shall not obey God… we won’t let you!” And it tells the victims, “Tough luck. Find your remedy elsewhere.” Of course this only raises our taxes to pay for the non-productivity of inmates and the system that supports them, and our insurance premiums that cover the damage that the state won’t allow the criminal or negligent to repay. Yet as ironic as it can get, “conservative”, “bible-believing” Christians are the ones most ardent in promoting “tough on crime” policies, making the strongest pleas for the most unbiblical forms of punishment.
    Additionally, cases like this show just how much the mockery of mental illness through “insanity” pleas have affected how we really view true cases of mental illness.

  2. K. Darrell November 28, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Mega dittos to Steve’s post. Am I allowed to mega ditto him?
    Now, I don’t know the ins-and-outs of this case or issues revolved around “mental illness”, but, I believe, what Steve lays out gets at justice better than incarceration, etc.
    My main reason for writing is this – you seem to criticize this family for wanting vengeance, but, given Steve’s post, I think they should be applauded for pursuing the right channels of “vengeance”. Romans 12 flows into Romans 13 and the means of God repaying evil for evil and vengeance, I believe, is the civil magistrates. They are the ones with the sword to “execute wrath upon evil doers”. The ordinary means for the Lord doing this are the civil magistrates, so their call for “justice”, although maybe misdirected at points, is appealing to the right authorities for this justice/vengeance. The civil magistrates are the “ministers of wrath”, so we should not simply think of God’s judgments as other worldly and not pertaining to the here and now, but are quite practical. An understanding of God’s vengeance and paying evil for evil is understanding the roll of the civil magistrates in the world.

  3. John H. Armstrong November 28, 2007 at 10:39 am

    I agree with you both in reality. What I am criticizing in the families is the way they will be unable to deal with their pain and grief. To adopt a vengeful response will not help them at all regardless of what the court does or doesn’t do. I agree we need a much different system and in this case prison would not even be necessary actually. This young woman could become involved in helping in the healing of others who suffer from trials, including her victims. This is the biblical view you both argue for and I agree with it totally.
    Presently we let families come to court and then even address convicted felons and the press and what we see and hear is their anguish and pain and very little that seems to help them in reality. The system is clearly broken and this case underscores it a great deal.

  4. Gene Redlin November 28, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    I agree with all three of you. This whole deal grieved me. I think however long or short her incarceration will be may be an opprotunity for the gospel. Let’s believe God for it at least.
    In Germany, today, the maximum anyone, even a murderer can get in prison is 13 years. Somehow that seems to make sense to me.
    But, I’m a softie.

  5. Jennifer April 8, 2008 at 10:31 pm

    I just now saw this posting about Jeanette Sliwinski. I personally know Jeanette and worked with her in 2005. I know that this will spark a lot of opinions, but she is a very sweet girl. Deeply troubled and uncared for properly (medically) but a good girl. I cannot imagine the pain of these young men’s family but I beg for some forgiveness for this girl. I am sure that she was not functioning properly when this happened and if you would have asked me before hand, I would have told you never in a million years would she hurt someone. The horrible truth is that she did though. I believe that the judge did the right thing. She needs help, she does not need to rot in jail for the rest of her life. I know that she killed those men, I know that they will never be back on earth. This is the most tragic thing I have heard in recent times. I hope that she can still become productive and somehow try to reconcile with society.

  6. Peter S. June 25, 2008 at 12:31 am

    To be fair to the families (and their perceived desire for “vengeance”), the prosecutor was initially seeking not merely 1st degree charges but possibly the death penalty. All three families, still mourning the deaths of their loved ones, opposed the death penalty and made that clear to prosecutors. They wanted justice, certainly, but never vengeance per se.

  7. TexRex96 July 7, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    I think it is grossly unfair to characterize the families’ intent as “vengeance,” and to dismiss their skeptical characterization of the defendant’s remorse. By any yardstick of American justice, four years prison for willfully causing the deaths of three people is an extremely light sentence. I believe her extenuating circumstances were adequately taken into consideration by the judge, but that the punishment does not fit the crime. If the defendant were not an attractive young white woman, I wonder how much the compassion argument would be in play. John, if you are seeking more Biblical thinking in the court system today — a risky venture considering how much vengeance is actually in the Bible — then I would recommend you focus on death penalty cases, since we now know with certainty we execute innocent people, and crimes more frequently caused by the poor such as drug dealing, a “crime” that often carries a much longer sentence than four years. Most death row inmates and drug dealers do not fit Ms. Sliwinski’s profile, yet perhaps they deserve compassion, too.

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