Wheels of justice turning slowly in death of Paxton woman

PAXTON — In the two-plus years since a head-on crash south of Paxton killed a 19-year-old woman, the wheels of justice have turned slowly in bringing to trial the man whose alleged drunken driving caused her death.

As of Friday, 849 days had passed since Thomas T. Hoekstra was charged with one count of reckless homicide and two counts of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol in connection with the Aug. 1, 2016, accident that killed Kourtni Sue “Suzy” Elizabeth Eastman of Paxton and left three others injured.

In that time, Hoekstra has appeared in court seven times, and seven telephone conferences have been held between his attorney, Frank A. Astrella of Joliet, and Ford County prosecutors as they slowly have worked through the pretrial discovery process. Ford County Circuit Court records showed 42 docket entries in the case ahead of another court hearing Friday.

Hoekstra, of rural Paxton, is now 27 years old. His case is now being handled by a second prosecutor — State’s Attorney Andrew Killian — after Randy Yedinak left the job when he was elected state’s attorney in his native Livingston County.

As part of the discovery process, Astrella and the prosecution have been exchanging information about the witnesses and evidence they will present at trial. Yet not until Friday had a trial date been set by Judge Matt Fitton.

At the start of Friday’s court hearing, Astrella asked that he and Killian meet privately in the judge’s chambers with Fitton to work out a plea agreement to avoid having the case go to trial. Fitton said the so-called “402 conference” — allowed under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 402(d) — would involve the prosecution and defense telling him about the facts of the case and what witnesses are expected to say at trial. At the conference’s conclusion, Fitton said, he would then make a recommendation about what an appropriate sentence should be to resolve the case, and either party could then accept or reject his recommendation.

One hour later, Fitton, Astrella and Killian re-entered the courtroom, with Fitton saying no agreement could immediately be reached due to some “issues that Mr. Killian wants to follow up on,” as well as some additional “information” that the defense has requested from the prosecution.

Fitton then set Hoekstra’s trial for April 8, with a pretrial conference set for 11 a.m. Feb. 4. Fitton noted that the pretrial conference could possibly again be a “402 conference” if both parties are prepared for one.

Exchanging of evidence
The discovery process has been a particularly slow one in the Hoekstra case, as the defense and prosecution have exchanged evidence and witness lists for many months.

Astrella’s most recent disclosure to the prosecution was made in a Sept. 21 court filing, in which Astrella provided copies of “Facebook entries” and named Heather and Russell Hoekstra as two of the defense’s potential witnesses.

On that same date, Astrella filed a motion seeking additional discovery from the prosecution, including evidence related to the criminal history of Raymond Mattingly, 27, of Paxton, who was riding in the back seat of the car that was struck by Hoekstra’s 1997 Dodge Caravan. The motion noted that Mattingly was “the only occupant of the other vehicle who gave an incriminating statement against” Hoekstra.

During a preliminary hearing in August 2016, Astrella said that Mattingly was the only one who could remember what happened, and there were no other witnesses. Agent Clayt Wolfe of the Illinois State Police testified that Mattingly, when interviewed some five hours after the crash, told police that he saw Hoekstra’s van swerve into the car’s lane just before impact. Astrella, however, questioned whether Mattingly’s recollection may have been tainted by his injuries or perhaps medication administered to him at the hospital.

Also in Astrella’s Sept. 21 motion, the prosecution was asked to provide “full and complete medical records” for Mattingly, Miss Eastman and Deacon K. Peck, 22, of Paxton — who were all passengers in the car that was being driven by Jaupone Noraseng, 22, of Rantoul. Noraseng’s medical records have already been provided to the defense.

Astrella also requested “any and all mental health records” for Miss Eastman.

Cell phone ‘not relevant’
Meanwhile, in a separate Sept. 21 motion, Astrella asks the court to bar the prosecution from introducing into evidence at Hoekstra’s trial “any messages, photos or anything else recovered” from Hoekstra’s cell phone. Astrella said in the motion that Hoekstra’s cell phone was “inexplicably seized” at the Ford County Jail after state police transported him there from Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana. Astrella said “any messages or photos or anything else currently on the cell phone” are of “no probative value to the issues at trial and are not relevant,” adding that “the only possible purpose for the admission of such evidence would be to prejudice the jury against Mr. Hoekstra.”

According to court records, among the evidence that prosecutors have already disclosed to Astrella are: a state police traffic crash reconstruction report; video footage from state police squad cars; criminal leads reports on Noraseng, Peck and Mattingly; a report from Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup concerning the death of Miss Eastman; and 50 hospital photographs.

‘State cannot prove its case’
Hoekstra has pleaded not guilty, and Astrella said in a court filling that “the state cannot prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Reckless homicide is a Class 3 felony punishable by a sentence ranging from probation to up to five years in state prison, while aggravated driving under the influence is a Class 2 felony punishable by probation to up to 14 years in prison.

The crash occurred shortly after midnight on Aug. 1, 2016, on U.S. 45 near Ford County Road 200 North, just south of Paxton. Police said Hoekstra’s southbound van apparently crossed the center line and collided head-on with the northbound car, a 2001 Pontiac. Miss Eastman, the car’s front-seat passenger, later was pronounced dead at Carle Foundation Hospital.

At the crash scene, Hoekstra had an odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from his breath and admitted to consuming alcohol prior to the crash, Wolfe testified at Hoekstra’s preliminary hearing. Wolfe said Hoekstra was unable to recall what had happened but said he was tired and must have fallen asleep. According to Wolfe, Hoekstra failed field-sobriety tests at the crash scene.

Later, after Hoekstra was taken to Carle, a portable breath test administered to Hoekstra showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.117 — above the legal limit of 0.08. Wolfe said an emergency blood draw taken earlier at the hospital showed Hoekstra’s BAC was even higher, at a level of 0.152.

Location (3):Local, Paxton, Ford County

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