Two perspectives on OWI justice
Experience shapes candidates’ views
By Robert Cloud
Both candidates for Waupaca County district attorney have experienced first hand how drunken driving impacts families and communities.
For Democrat Robert Forseth, the death of his sister in a 2005 crash and his family’s subsequent ordeal has shaped, in part, his views about prosecuting and sentencing OWI-homicide defendants.
For Republican Veronica Isherwood, a 2008 case involving a 24-year-old defendant gave her insight into the grim costs of drinking and driving.
On Aug. 14, 2005, 18-year-old Kelly Forseth was a passenger in a car driven by a man who was age 20 at the time.
Intoxicated and unfamiliar with the area, he lost control of his vehicle on a curve on County Trunk E in the town of Lind.
“My sister was the only one who was killed and another gentleman was injured,” Forseth said.
Forseth said the family heard conflicting stories on what happened and how his sister died.
“We spent a whole week with questions,” Forseth said.
They then spent nearly a year sitting through court hearings, waiting for resolution.
“He pleaded no contest,” Forseth said. “Initially, I was hoping he would get eight years. The maximum was 10 years. When the ruling finally came down to five years, I was a little disappointed.”
Over time, Forseth began reconsidering the man’s punishment.
“We imprisoned him just for negligence. We destroyed his life, too,” Forseth said. “I often wonder if there was a better way that sentence could have gone.”
Forseth said the families of victims have a unique perspective on the justice system.
“It was really important to us to get closure after eight months of not really knowing what really happened and not knowing how it would conclude,” Forseth said. “Retribution for victims plays a role in providing closure.”
For the state, retribution also serves as a deterrent. But the court system’s primary role, according to Forseth, is to encourage people convicted of crimes to become functioning members of society.
He advocates an OWI court, similar to the drug treatment court currently being proposed in Waupaca County.
Forseth noted that multiple drunken driving offenses are a sign that a person has a problem and needs help. He does not think prison is always the best answer.
“If it was to the point of sheer recklessness, I can see recommending prison,” Forseth said. “Would I do it for every fourth-plus OWI? No, I don’t think it’s appropriate for every situation.”
Forseth believes a district attorney must look at the specific details of each case before determining whether to recommend prison or not.
“The OWI case that had the biggest impact was a young lady – 24 years old – who pulled out of a tavern driveway after a celebration of the last day of a softball league,” Isherwood said. “In 2008 she pulled into the path of a young man on his way to work and killed him.”
Isherwood said the woman was immediately arrested, held in custody on a cash bond and charged with OWI homicide within days of the incident.
“This defendant was as remorseful as anyone I have ever seen,” Isherwood said. “She refused any type of medication at the jail. She said she needed to feel the pain, she didn’t deserve to take something for depression or anxiety.”
The woman pleaded guilty to the charges. At the sentencing, the courtroom was packed. There were tearful statements from the family and friends of the victim, Charlie.
“He was a remarkable young man with so much to look forward to and so loved by his family and friends,” Isherwood said. “And then there were statements made on behalf of the young woman. She too had so much promise and such a future ahead. There was not a dry eye in the room – the judge included.”
Isherwood recommended and the defendant was sentenced to eight years in prison followed by extended supervision.
“I felt so sorry for this particular defendant, but my job was to argue for Charlie, to argue for justice,” Isherwood said. “What people don’t understand is that after a conviction and sentencing in a case like this, no one is going to feel better. No one is going to feel justice was done. The loss is just too immense to measure.”
Isherwood believes that as a prosecutor she should recommend sentencing based upon a myriad of factors pertinent to each particular case.
“Ultimately the sentence is up to the judge but it’s the prosecutor’s actions that get the case to that point of sentencing,” Isherwood said.
She said the OWI homicide made her a stronger prosecutor of OWIs at every level.
“If we don’t punish the OWI first, second, thirds and up, swiftly and decisively, the behavior won’t change and it’s only a matter of time until there is another Charlie,” Isherwood said.
She said a prosecutor should recommend a resolution for every criminal case that will “give victims finality, place responsibility where it belongs – on the shoulders of the defendant and ultimately recommend a sentence that will meet rehabilitative needs so that the community is safer.”