MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A Collierville woman convicted in a deadly 2015 car crash will get a new sentencing hearing. More than 4 years after Sterling Panchikal hit and killed a mother of 13, she still hasn’t served one day in jail.
In 2018, a judge sentenced her to 30 days behind bars and denied her request for diversion. Her attorneys appealed the decision and won.
On May 2nd, 2015, on the morning of Panchikal’s 17th birthday, she crossed the median of Bill Morris Parkway and hit two cars. 47-year-old Alejandra Sanchez-Ponce was killed. Her pregnant daughter was seriously injured.
Shelby County traffic investigators say they found bottles of vodka, marijuana, scales and a pipe in Panchikal's car. She tested positive for marijuana, but at levels so low, investigators testified recklessness, not intoxication, caused the accident.
As her case wound through the courts, Panchikal spent 5 months in a mental health facility, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, graduated high school, enrolled in college and started going to church. Three years after the accident, she took a plea deal from the Shelby County District Attorney’s office, pleading guilty to reckless homicide, three counts reckless endangerment and possession of marijuana.
Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft sentenced Panchikal to 30-days in jail with 6 years probation and denied her diversion, a legal tactic that would lead to dismissal of all the charges, and the defendant could eventually seek expungement.
Her attorneys appealed and the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee ruled in their favor.
"The trial court," said the higher court's ruling, "was confused about the offense to which the defendant was pleading guilty. This mistake tainted the court's decision making process."
The appellate court found that Judge Craft repeatedly referred to Panchikal's main charge as "reckless vehicular homicide", when in fact, she pled guilty to a lesser charge of "reckless homicide."
"The trial court, was, at a minimum," wrote the appeals court, "confused about the nature of the offense. Sentencing the defendant for an offense to which she did not plead guilty breaches a clear and unequivocal rule of law and adversely affects her substantial rights."
The State maintains the trial court properly denied diversion after considering and weighing relevant factors. Any error in sentencing, said the State, was clerical in nature or waived and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying diversion.
The Shelby County DA’s office says Judge Craft will now have to set a date for Panchikal’s new sentencing hearing.
The victim's family has always said the original sentence of 30 days in jail wasn't adequate punishment for the death of Alejandra Sanchez-Ponce.
“She deserved more time and many years in jail,” Yesenia Ramirez-Sanchez told WMC Action News 5 in April 2018. Yesenia was 10-year-old when her mother died. “She took someone really important from me.”