RACINE - The 18 months that Luis Zavala, 79, will serve in jail for causing the crash that killed 4-year-old Michael Hankins is not enough for members of the boy's family.
Michael died March 11, two days after Zavala's van struck the car Michael was in. Zavala was driving without a license and had previously been told not to drive. An investigation into the crash showed Zavala was going 40-45 mph when he ran a red light at Meachem Road and Durand Avenue, said Assistant District Attorney Noah Wishau, striking the car, which was traveling between 10 and 12 mph. Michael was wearing a seat belt, but was not in a booster or car seat, when the crash occurred.
Donald Lester, Michael's step-grandfather, said he was "appalled at the District Attorney's Office for only giving this man 18 months for taking my grandson's life."
He said he and his wife started paying $200 more in rent two weeks before Michael's death to have a room for him in their home.
"That boy was the nucleus of our family," he said. "You took away the heart and soul of our family."
Wishau said he had no choice in the recommendation - the nine months in jail is the maximum sentence allowed for driving without a license-causing injury and driving without a license-causing death, the two charges of which Zavala was convicted.
Defense attorney Mark Richards said Zavala has no prior criminal record, and that he is a legal resident of the country who has lived in Racine for about 50 years.
"The prosecutor talked about the reasons my client doesn't have a driver's license," he said. "He's a resident alien with a first-grade education. He could not pass a test where there was a written test."
Richards agrees his client shouldn't have been driving, but said Zavala was not the only one at fault.
"This 4-year-old child, it is a tragedy," he said. "This child was not in a booster seat or a child safety seat, which contributed to the tragedy."
He said he did not think jail was an appropriate sentence for his client.
"I do not believe putting a 79-year-old man in the jail with the health problems he has, where he could possibly die or have a stroke, is in the best interest of this county or this family," Richards said. "I understand the need for vengeance. At a certain point we have to understand what we do today is not going to undo what happened on March 9, 2010."
Racine County Circuit Court Judge Allan "Pat" Torhorst said if there ever was a situation where the law didn't fit the facts, this is probably it.
"This is a man who in all respects throughout his life has been responsible to his family, and in all respects you have a young person who is absolutely without fault who is the victim," Torhorst said.
"There are factors on both sides which are important, but we are dealing with the facts under the law as they are given to us. The defendant, operating a vehicle at his age, without a license. He had prior convictions for the same thing as recently as 2007, and he continued to operate the vehicle."
Torhorst said there is no doubt "this case is a tragedy going both directions," but that the responsibility rests with Zavala.
"There's no way that any sentence in this case can justify the death of a young person," Torhorst said. "There's no way that the maximum penalties can justify what should be ordered here. From my point of view, the penalties as requested by the state, albeit the maximum, if I had the ability to raise, I would, but I can't. I'm bound by the state's recommendation in that respect."