Prison - Photo courtesy of Unsplash

A 23-year-old woman was sentenced Friday to 21 years to life in prison for an alcohol-fueled crash that killed a Santa Ana couple and left their three young daughters hospitalized.

Grace Elizabeth Coleman pleaded guilty June 24 when she accepted a plea deal from Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett, who capped the maximum punishment at 21 years to life in prison, her attorney John Barnett said.

“Ms. Coleman openly accepted responsibility to the judge for this complete tragedy,” Coleman’s other defense attorney, Paul Meyer, said.

“We recognize the difficult judicial call in a very tragic case involving a 22-year old young woman and the truly horrible results of drinking and driving,” Meyer said Friday. “We appreciate the judge’s wisdom in balancing the very sad tragedy with Grace Coleman’s age, full acceptance of responsibility and strong rehabilitation along with her year of selfless community service while in custody.”

Coleman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder as well as single counts each of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, a DUI with a blood-alcohol content exceeding the legal limit of .08% or more causing injury, and failure to stop at a hit-and-run with injury or death, all felonies, as well as misdemeanor counts of driving under the influence of alcohol and driving with a blood-alcohol content in excess of the legal limit.

Coleman could have faced up to 42 years and eight months to life in prison if convicted at trial.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker alleged that on the night of the deadly collision in Newport Beach, Dec. 8, 2020, Coleman got a ride home before the crash, but then got back behind the wheel of her vehicle.

The misdemeanor DUI charges relate to Coleman’s arrest in Laguna Beach on Aug. 29. That case was not submitted to prosecutors until Dec. 16, 2020, said Kimberly Edds, a public information officer with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Under state law, a driver with a prior DUI conviction who is subsequently involved in a deadly DUI crash can be charged with second-degree murder, which carries a life sentence. The same legal principle is applied in some cases for a prior arrest when a suspect has been given what is known as a Watson waiver admonishment.

Walker previously said in court that Coleman was involved in a hit-and-run with property damage in 2019 in Laguna Beach.

According to now-retired Laguna Beach police Sgt. Jim Cota, the victim reported the collision the following day and submitted video footage, but the two sides later settled the matter between themselves and no arrest or referral for charges was made to prosecutors.

Prosecutors alleged Coleman’s blood-alcohol level was 0.22% — nearly three times the legal limit — at the time of the collision that killed Henry Eduardo Saldana-Mejia, 27, of Santa Ana, and his wife, Gabriela Andrade, who would have turned 29 later in December 2020.

According to a GoFundMe page created by Andrade’s sister, the family had been admiring holiday lights in the area that night, and the victims’ daughters, who are 1, 3 and 5 years old, were dressed in “their Christmas pajamas.”

Santa Ana police raised $8,000 to help the children and bought toys for them for Christmas, said former Santa Ana Police Department Cpl. Anthony Bertagna. They all suffered broken legs and the oldest also had broken arms, Bertagna said.

Coleman was driving a black Range Rover southbound on Newport Coast Drive when the SUV collided with the victims’ Nissan Versa as Saldana was turning onto Pelican Hills Road South at 7:46 p.m., according to Heather Rangel, a spokeswoman for the Newport Beach Police Department.

Rangel said the three children were riding in the back seat of the sedan. She said Coleman “possibly” ran a red light.

Saldana-Mejia and his wife were pronounced dead at the scene.

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