MORRISON – The tension in the courtroom was palpable Wednesday in the minutes before the judge handed down the sentence for a Rock Falls man who killed a pedestrian while driving drunk in November 2011.
Chad E. Morse, 42, was sentenced to 14 years – the maximum sentence for aggravated DUI. The families of Morse and his 33-year-old victim, Brad E. Nitsch, gasped.
Morse must serve at least 85 percent, or 10 years and 5 months. He then will be on 2 years of mandatory supervised release, and must pay more than $2,300 in restitution.
The sentencing ended what Whiteside County Judge John Hauptman acknowledged has been a long and emotional 2 years since the Rock Falls man's death and Morse's subsequent incarceration.
During the hearing, both sides called witnesses to testify to the characters of Nitsch and Morse. Nitsch's cousin, Ashley Jarvis, was the first to take the stand.
"We're empty," she said through tears. "There's an empty spot now. He made us smile and feel loved.
"Anything that I needed, he was there to help. All I had to do was ask."
Assistant State's Attorney Brian Brim called two other witnesses and then read a letter from Nitsch's mother, Joanne Nitsch.
Morse looked down, sobbing, his feet in shackles.
"Every day it hurts so much that my heart breaks with the loneliness," Brim read. "Every day that goes by feels like a lifetime."
Defense attorney Theron Burall then called his witnesses, starting with Morse's mother, Carol Morse.
"There's not a day that goes by that we don't pray for the other family," she said before telling of the hardships placed on her son's two daughters because of his absence. His 8-year-old, especially, is having a lot of difficulties, she said.
"They've been homeless, and they're under threat of being homeless again."
At the close of the attorneys' final arguments, Morse stood to read a statement.
"I stand before you a man of many flaws and imperfections," he began. "I fully acknowledge my wrongdoings. On that evening I made a careless, poor decision. Brad did not deserve this.
"For all I've done wrong, my sincerest apologies," he said. "Never will I ever forget what I've done. I pray for forgiveness. I beg for mercy. I live in shame. God bless all I've burdened."
Before passing sentence, Hauptman said he took into consideration the effect Morse's incarceration would have on his daughters, but Morse's lengthy history of alcohol-related criminal offenses and the precedent a severe judgment would set appeared to outweigh that.
"This is an absolutely heart-wrenching case," Hauptman said. "Nothing that I do here today is going to fix anything. I can't bring Brad Nitsch back. I can't change the horrible events that happened on Nov. 26, 2011.
"Whenever anyone is involved in our court system because of alcohol, that person has a problem with alcohol," he said. "He made a conscious choice to get behind the wheel of a car when he had absolutely no business doing it."
Morse pleaded guilty to aggravated DUI in March, and was to be sentenced May 14. Because a request for a mental evaluation had been overlooked, Hauptman put off the sentencing. After the evaluation was conducted, Morse was deemed fit and re-entered his guilty plea on July 19.
As part of a plea agreement, six other counts were dismissed: three of reckless homicide, another aggravated DUI, and two misdemeanor DUIs.
Police say Morse was driving 51 to 63 mph in a 30-mph zone about 11:30 p.m. that night when his car went off the road and hit Nitsch, who was standing in the 700 block of Avenue D.
Krissy Collins, Nitsch's 32-year-old sister, lives in Alabama and couldn't be in court today.
"Justice is never going to be served, as our family looks at it, because it was a life that was taken," she said in a phone interview. "But I was appreciative that it was 14 years."
As Morse was led from the courtroom, he mouthed "I love you" to his parents, who responded with the same.