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DUI Trial Starts for Torrance Substance Abuse Counselor

Sherri Lynn Wilkins is accused of hitting Phillip Moreno with her car, then driving two more miles with him still on the vehicle.

FILE PHOTO: Police lights. Photo credit John Schreiber.
FILE PHOTO: Police lights. Photo credit John Schreiber.

A defense attorney conceded today that a substance abuse counselor downed two airplane-sized bottles of vodka shortly before fatally striking a pedestrian, but claimed the victim leapt at the car, while a prosecutor said the motorist drove two miles with the man embedded in her windshield and passed up chances to get help at a nearby hospital or fire station.

Sherri Lynn Wilkins, 52, of Torrance, is charged with murder in the death of Phillip Moreno, who was struck on Torrance Boulevard near Madrid Avenue in Torrance at 11:25 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2012. The 31-year-old Torrance man died at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Wilkins is also charged with one felony count each of DUI causing injury, driving with a .08 percent or higher blood-alcohol content causing injury and leaving the scene of an accident.

"The defendant murdered Phillip Moreno. She was driving drunk," Deputy District Attorney John Harlan told jurors in his opening statement. "She not only shirked her absolute duty to help him ... she drove him closer to death."

He pointed to a circle superimposed over a photo of what he said was Wilkins' car caught on camera headed down Torrance Boulevard.

"That yellow circle is Phillip Moreno impaled in the windshield of the defendant's Mitsubishi Eclipse," the prosecutor said.

Harlan said Wilkins passed up opportunities to drive to a hospital or fire station, both nearby, to save Moreno. Instead she drove away from help and into an industrial area dominated by an oil refinery, he said.

"(Wilkins) doesn't brake, doesn't pull over, doesn't stop," Harlan said.

She also failed to dial 911, though she called her husband twice from her cell phone, according to records presented by the prosecution.

At a hearing last May in which Wilkins was ordered to stand trial, prosecution witness Stephanie Hicks identified the defendant as the woman who had been driving a vehicle that was "swerving left to right and going into the median" at Del Amo and Crenshaw boulevards.

Hicks testified that she called 911 and directed her friend to follow the car, which eventually stopped at Crenshaw and 182nd Street in Torrance, where Wilkins was told to get out of the car.

"I asked her what was going on. She said she was taking him to the hospital," Hicks said, adding that the woman said the man had "jumped in front of her car."

Hicks testified she saw the pedestrian's legs stuck in the windshield and that she tried to comfort him as he moaned in pain.

"He was in bad condition," she said of the man, who was not wearing pants, underwear or shoes.

Hicks testified that Wilkins seemed shocked and said repeatedly that she was "in trouble."

Moreno had lost four liters of blood by the time he was taken to surgery and it was too late to save him, Harlan told jurors. He asked the panel to "hold her responsible for everything she has done."

Defense attorney Nan Whitfield painted a very different picture. She said Moreno had removed all of his clothing and deliberately jumped at or tried to jump over her client's car after leaving a nearby bar he liked to frequent called The Branch Office.

Whitfield asked jurors to imagine themselves in the place of the defendant.

"She saw a flash of a body and the next thing she knows, bam! ... a naked person is on top of (her) car," the defense attorney said.

Her client was "understandably freaked out" and just "trying to process what was going on" as she drove from the scene, Whitfield said.

"She was hysterical, distraught, dazed and shocked," the attorney said, telling jurors that her client "was not drunk" at the time of the impact.

Wilkins' blood-alcohol content was tested at .15 percent -- nearly two times the legal limit -- two hours after the crash. But Whitfield said the alcohol hadn't had time to be absorbed into Wilkins' bloodstream at the time of the collision, and it was only later that she was legally drunk.

"Blood-alcohol content had absolutely nothing to do with the death of Phillip Moreno, at least not hers," Whitfield said.

She said her client had kicked a 30-year addiction that began with painkillers and graduated to long-term heroin use, but told jurors the substance abuse counselor had reached a place where "she was able to give something back."

Marco Salgado, Moreno's brother-in-law, testified as the first witness for the prosecution. Salgado was both a client of Wilkins at the drug counseling center where she worked and was called out to set up traffic cones at the scene of the Torrance crash, where he learned his sister's brother had been killed.

He testified that Wilkins had told a group of three patients at the center about her previous problems with addiction and told them "she was afraid that if she ever drank again she would kill someone or end up in jail."

Whitfield challenged that testimony and pointed out that Salgado did not initially tell investigators about Wilkins' alleged comment.

"The first time you actually said it was while you were on TV, is that right?" Whitfield asked.

Salgado testified that he first mentioned the statement on a talk show with addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky. When questioned, he said he was not paid for the appearance.

Testimony is scheduled to resume late Tuesday morning.

—City News Service.

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