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OPINION - No leniency

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  I’m in favor of second chances. If someone is sorry and makes amends, I’m agreeable to forgiving and moving on.

James Winchel of Sheldon is about to get a second chance he doesn’t deserve. Actually, it’s his fifth chance. And there’s no reason for leniency.

Winchel’s story was in the news last fall during the deer hunting season. He’s the driver who crashed into members of a hunting party who were walking alongside a road in Gilman. He hit two people. One – Juan Salanis from Roscoe, Illinois – died at the scene. Another was hospitalized with serious injuries.

Winchel was arrested by Taylor County sheriffs deputies. His blood-alcohol level was .19 – twice the legal limit. He’s charged with vehicular homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle.

This is Winchel’s 5th drunk driving charge. Obviously the lesson was not learned during his 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th arrests. During the fatal crash Winchel was also charged with driving without insurance. A four-time-loser for OWI will find it difficult and very expensive to get insurance. If his victims don’t have their own health insurance they’ll also be on-the-hook for their own medical bills and funeral expenses.

We kept him out of jail and behind the wheel until he killed someone. And now he has.

Earlier this week we learned that James Winchel is being considered for a plea bargain. This is an outrage. No leniency. No break. This is someone who deserves to serve the maximum time in jail for the logical conclusion of years of disregarding our laws about drinking and driving. He continued to do it. Sooner or later he was going to cause a serious accident and take a life.

I understand that plea bargains serve a useful purpose. The criminal justice system would grind to a halt if every case went to trial. Getting guilty pleas in exchange for lesser sentences makes sense. But not in this case. Winchel probably wouldn’t escape jail time even with a plea bargain. But there’s no reason for a special deal. An innocent man has lost his life because James Winchel needed a drink.

Judge Ann Knox-Bauer has signaled that she sees this case for what it is. She turned down a request to lower Winchel’s $50,000 bond so he could bail-out and attend an alcohol treatment program. She also has the final say on any plea agreement reached between prosecutors and Winchel’s defense lawyer. Let’s hope she does the right thing. Justice demands a long jail sentence.

Chris Conley

Image: James Winchel mug shot, wsau.com