State appellate justices Friday overturned the murder and DUI convictions of a former substance abuse counselor who fatally injured a pedestrian in Torrance and drove more than two miles with the victim embedded in her windshield.A three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal found that the admission of Sherri Lynn Wilkins’ rap sheet “was prejudicial error” that required reversal of her February 2014 conviction on one count of second-degree murder and two DUI charges stemming from the Nov. 24, 2012, crash that killed Phillip Moreno, 31, of Torrance.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office had no comment on the appellate decision.
In a 30-page ruling, the justices noted that the Los Angeles Superior Court jury that heard the case against Wilkins “knew defendant had a history of drug addiction and that she had committed serious crimes in the past.”
But the admission of her rap sheet “added to the picture a suggestion that defendant had a history of unpunished crimes, a propensity for crime, and it counteracted her attempts to portray herself as having turned her life around until the charged crime.”
The ruling allows prosecutors to retry Wilkins on the murder charge and one count each of DUI causing injury and driving with a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content causing injury, with justices finding that “there was substantial evidence to support a finding that defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing Moreno’s death.”
“Although defendant presented evidence intended to show that Moreno leaped or fell onto her car, there was also contradictory evidence indicating that she in fact hit him with her car,” the justices ruled.
“Even in the absence of definitive evidence regarding how the collision occurred, there was evidence that defendant’s subsequent conduct was a substantial factor in causing Moreno’s death. After the collision, defendant drove several miles with Moreno stuck on or in her windshield. She did not stop. She did not call 911. Meanwhile, Moreno was in the process of bleeding to death on the hood of her car.”
The appellate court panel allowed Wilkins’ conviction on a fourth count — leaving the scene of an accident — to stand.
“The evidence was overwhelming and undisputed that defendant was involved in a vehicle accident; the accident caused the death of Moreno; defendant knew she had been involved in an accident that injured another person; and she willfully failed to immediately stop at the scene of the accident and failed to provide reasonable assistance to Moreno,” the justices found.
Authorities said Wilkins struck Moreno on Torrance Boulevard near Madrid Avenue on Nov. 24, 2012, and drove 2.2 miles with Moreno embedded in the windshield of her car before another motorist directed her to pull over.
Deputy District Attorney Saman Ahmadpour told jurors during his closing argument that the Torrance woman failed to immediately stop or check on Moreno’s welfare or to notify authorities what had happened and swerved her car to try to “shake him off.”
Wilkins — employed at the time as a substance abuse counselor — eventually stopped her Mitsubishi Eclipse at Crenshaw Boulevard and 182nd Street, and smoked a cigarette as bystanders tried to help the victim, the prosecutor told jurors.
Moreno died later at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
Defense attorney Nan Whitfield said after the verdict that she believed the case was “so emotionally charged” that jurors were unable to fairly evaluate the evidence against Wilkins. She maintained that Wilkins was not drunk at the time of the collision.
Wilkins’ attorney contended that the alcohol her client drank — described by Wilkins as three vodka shots with beer and tomato juice — just before getting behind the wheel had not yet gotten into her system or impaired her driving ability.
She had a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent about 90 minutes after the crash — nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent.
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.”
In her testimony, Wilkins told jurors that 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 vehicle’s 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 car’s windshield.
Wilkins was sentenced in June 2014 to 55 years to life in state prison following her conviction.
Speaking directly to the victims’ family members and friends shortly before she was sentenced, 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.
— City News Service
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: