Substance abuse counselor who drove with dying man on windshield gets 55 years to life

The Associated Press

Sherri Lynn Wilkins gets emotional in court during sentencing Thursday June 12, 2014 in Los Angeles. Wilkins, a substance abuse counselor, who struck a pedestrian with her car and drove through a Los Angeles suburb with the dying man on her windshield was sentenced Thursday to 55 years to life in prison. Wilkins, 53, was convicted by a jury earlier this year of second-degree murder, driving under the influence and hit-and-run. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Associated Press + More

By LINDA DEUTSCH, AP Special Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A substance-abuse counselor was sentenced Thursday to 55 years to life in prison for hitting a pedestrian with her car and driving through a Los Angeles suburb with the dying man on her windshield.

A jury earlier this year convicted Sherri Lynn Wilkins, 53, of second-degree murder, driving under the influence and hit-and-run.

Prosecutors said Wilkins' blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit when she struck 31-year-old Phillip Moreno in November 2012 as she was leaving a counseling center.

She drove 2 miles through the city of Torrance before other motorists swarmed her car at a traffic light and kept her there until police arrived. Moreno was taken to a hospital, where he died.

Superior Court Judge Henry Hall said, "Ms. Wilkins demonstrated an extraordinary callousness in fleeing the scene and trying to shake Mr. Moreno's body off her car. This is a callous murder, not an unfortunate act."

Hall rejected a request from the defense and sentenced Wilkins under California's three strikes law, citing her long history of drug-related crimes. That tripled the minimum 15 years to life she otherwise could have received before being eligible for parole.

Wilkins, who was a drug addict before she became a drug and alcohol counselor, contended she wasn't drunk that night. She claimed she was "self-medicating" while waiting for knee-replacement surgery and had consumed three single-serving bottles of vodka and a can of Budweiser beer and Clamato before starting to drive.

In her first apology since that night, Wilkins turned toward 16 Moreno family members and friends in the courtroom Thursday and said what happened was a "tragedy."

"I am sorry for the pain I caused you," she said. "It hurt so many people."

The judge said he carefully considered the three strikes element.

"Ms. Wilkins is not what we normally see," Hall said. "She's not a classic violent criminal. But you have to evaluate her history. She had an insatiable desire to become intoxicated."

She also had a "relatively unbroken crime history" dating back 34 years, he said.

Wilkins' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Nan Whitfield, said she would appeal.

"Because this case was so emotionally charged," she told the judge, "the jury was unable to see the evidence."

Outside court, Whitfield said, "Nobody likes a drunk driver. Because she was a drug and alcohol counselor, she's held to a higher standard."

Deputy District Attorneys John Harland and Sam Ahmadpour said jurors evaluated the evidence carefully.

"Everyone is a human being and you have emotions, but this was not based on emotion," said Harland.

Wilkins testified during the trial that she never saw Moreno coming, and it was as if he fell from the sky. The defense argued Moreno was drunk and jumped on Wilkins' car and that she panicked.

The judge called that theory "fanciful" and an effort by Wilkins to evade responsibility.

Two family members and a friend of Moreno on Thursday angrily denounced Wilkins. Friend Victor Gasset said, "Phillip was 31. You were getting high longer than he was alive."

Moreno's brother, Tony, told her she deserves to "rot in prison the rest of your life."

Moreno's niece, Alyssa Moreno, told Wilkins: "You made sure Phillip went without any goodbyes. I wish the same for you. As of today, you will no longer exist to society. You will be just a number."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.