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Sentence in huffing case doesn’t feel like justice

It’s hard to know exactly how to feel about the sentencing of John Stender last week. He wasn’t behind the wheel on Nov. 3, 2018, when Colten Treu drove his truck through a group of Girl Scouts cleaning up litter along the side of Highway P. But he certainly bore considerable responsibility.

Stender was with Treu earlier in the day, huffing right along with him as the pair got high. He was beside Treu when the latter started his truck and decided to drive. And he helped try to hide the pair’s involvement.

Judge James Isaacson’s comment about Stender’s responsibility was devastating and accurate: “You were with him huffing; you were with him when the carnage occurred. You knew the full extent of the crime that had been committed.”

But, as Isaacson continued, none of that places Stender behind the wheel. None of it puts him in the driver’s seat. While the moral weight may be much closer to Treu’s, Stender’s legal culpability is far lower.

That’s not a satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t feel right, when a few words might have changed everything. Simply saying “let’s wait until we get back home” might have been enough to save four lives and prevent numerous injuries, had Stender only said that. Had he held onto the can until they arrived, Treu might have been sober while driving.

Then, faced with the enormity of what had happened, Stender hid. He tried to avoid responsibility. He turned himself in only later, after spending time at someone else’s home and making a trip to the store. He was aware of his guilt, though his actions suggest he didn’t feel any.

Nor does it feel right that the sentence for Stender was so much shorter than Treu’s own. Treu’s assertion that Stender caused the crash by grabbing the wheel, an act Stender conceded took place, is remarkably convenient. So is Stender’s claim he hit his head during the crash and didn’t wake up until shortly before the pair arrived at Treu’s home.

So Stender will spend three years in prison and three under supervision after his release, one more of each than the pre-sentencing investigation proposed.

Less than a year behind bars for each life lost feels abysmally inadequate. Law isn’t based on feelings, though. Sentences are not based on the heat of emotion. In our society they are founded on the cold words written in the state’s legal code.

The part of Stender’s sentence that does feel right is the requirement Isaacson imposed for viewing an officer’s body camera video from the scene. When asked about it in court, Stender said he had not seen the video. That’s not a surprise given how closely held and sensitive the footage is.

Isaacson ordered Stender to watch the footage every year on the anniversary of the crash each year he is on extended supervision. Those who have seen it, including Isaacson, have rightfully been guarded about what they have said. It has clearly left a mark on those people. That is a mark Stender should bear as well.

There are other possibilities. Isaacson said he will suggest Stender clean the section of highway where the tragedy occurred each anniversary. We have mixed feelings about that. It is fitting, but those involved must also be mindful about the potential for conflict given that is a place and time at which the families of those killed may also be present.

Putting Stender at a known location on a known date may pose risks. The rage from families of those killed has, understandably, not abated. It is probably better for them if the temptation of a probable confrontation is not available.

The sentencing does allow us to do one thing, though. We’re not going to end this editorial by repeating the names of the truck’s driver or passenger.

Instead, we’re going to put the focus where it belongs, on the lives lost that day. We’re going to end by focusing on Jayna Kelley, Autumn Helgeson, Haylee Hickle and Sara Jo Schneider.

They paid the price for the callous negligence of others. They are the ones who lost their lives. And they are the ones who deserve to be remembered.

– Eau Claire-Leader Telegram

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