By TERRI VERMEULEN KEITH
City News Service
A substance abuse counselor who crashed her car into a pedestrian in Torrance after drinking alcohol outside the program where she worked, then drove more than two miles with the victim embedded in the windshield, was sentenced Thursday to 55 years to life in state prison.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall denied the defense's motion for a new trial, finding that the evidence was "clearly sufficient" against 53-year-old Sherri Lynn Wilkins.
She was convicted Feb. 4 of one count each of second-degree murder, DUI causing injury, driving with a 0.08 blood-alcohol content causing injury and leaving the scene of the Nov. 24, 2012, crash that killed Phillip Moreno, 31, of Torrance.
Speaking directly to the victim's family members and friends in court, Wilkins called what had happened "a tragedy" and said she was sorry for the pain they were experiencing. She said she had dedicated her life in 2006 to helping drug addicts.
Wilkins struck Moreno on Torrance Boulevard near Madrid Avenue and drove 2.2 miles with him embedded in the windshield of her car before another motorist directed her to pull over.
Wilkins eventually stopped her Mitsubishi Eclipse at Crenshaw Boulevard and 182nd Street, and smoked a cigarette as bystanders tried to help the injured man, Deputy District Attorney Saman Ahmadpour told jurors.
Moreno died at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
The victim's niece, Alyssa Moreno, said, "Phillip died alone so close to home ... That night will forever play in my head."
The victim's oldest brother, Tony Moreno, said Wilkins would have stopped her vehicle earlier that night if she was truly sorry for what happened.
Victor Gasset, who described Moreno as being like a son to him, told Wilkins, "We'll never know if he could have lived, thanks to you."
"I have no sympathy for you," he told Wilkins, calling her a "murderer."
Defense attorney Nan Whitfield told the judge that she believed the case was "so emotionally charged" that jurors were unable to fairly evaluate the evidence against her client. She maintained that Wilkins was not drunk at the time of the collision.
Whitfield contended that the alcohol her client drank just before getting behind the wheel — described by Wilkins as three vodka shots with beer and tomato juice — had not yet gotten into her system or impaired her driving ability. A blood sample that reflected a 0.15 percent blood-alcohol content was taken about an hour and a half after the collision.
Wilkins testified during her trial, telling jurors that she wasn't drunk at the time and that it seemed like the man "came from the sky."
Wilkins said she saw "like a blur of something, like a flash of something" while driving home after smoking a cigarette and drinking alcohol over about a 15-minute period in a parking lot outside her workplace. She said it took her a while to figure out that there was a body on her hood.
"It was very shocking and very strange. I didn't know what was going on ... I don't feel like I had hit him with my car," she testified, noting that she was scared and "didn't think it was real" as she continued to drive with Moreno embedded in her windshield.
The judge said there was "no question Ms. Wilkins understands the ramifications of drinking and driving," and described her conduct as "extraordinary callousness" when she swerved her car in an attempt to shake Moreno off of the vehicle rather than stopping the car to seek help for the injured man.
The judge refused to strike Wilkins' two prior strikes for burglary in 1989 and 1994, which resulted in her being sentenced as a three-strikes defendant whose 15-year-to-life term on the murder count was tripled. Wilkins also was ordered to serve an additional 10 years behind bars.
Wilkins' attorney argued that her client's prior convictions occurred at a time when Wilkins was addicted to drugs and that she had "turned her life around" since then.
Whitfield — who has called Wilkins' conviction "an outrage" — said her client intends to appeal her conviction.
Deputy District Attorney John Harlan said outside court that "justice was served by the maximum sentence being imposed. If she had just pulled over, we may not have been standing here."