California woman, 23, sentenced to 21 years for drunk driving accident leaving three daughters orphans
Grace Coleman is seen in her booking photo in December 2020
A drunk driver cried in court as she listened to victim impact statements from three little girls who were orphaned after crashing her Range Rover at their parents’ house.
Grace Coleman, 23, could be seen rubbing tears in her eyes at the Newport Beach courthouse on Friday as she was jailed for 21 years to life after admitting to the second degree murders of Henry Eduardo Saldana-Mejia, 27, and his wife Gabriela Andrade, 28, in December 2020.
During a particularly emotional part of the hearing, a family member read a letter from Elena Saldana-Mejia, who wrote, “I miss my mom and my dad.”
The full letter, displayed on a table in the courtroom, added: “I feel sad when the accident happened.” The judge presiding over the case was overwhelmed with emotion upon hearing the statements and had to stop to collect himself.
Elena’s parents were killed in Newport Beach in December 2020 after Coleman crashed his Range Rover Sport into their Nissan Versa while the family was looking for Christmas lights.
Elena and her sisters Emma Sofia and Samantha – all aged between one and five at the time – were wearing their Christmas pajamas when tragedy struck.
The three girls cried in their wrecked car after the accident, with Coleman passing them to try to leave the scene. She was apprehended by police before she could do so and was found to be almost three times over the drink-driving limit.
Coleman is seen sobbing outside court on Friday as victim impact statements are read
Henry Eduardo Saldana-Mejia, 27, and Gabriela Andrade, 28 (pictured) were killed by drunk driver Grace Coleman in December 2018. Coleman was jailed for 21 years to life, while the couple’s three orphaned daughters, Elena, Emma Sofia and Samantha watched and shared victim impact statements
The girls are seen in court with relatives as Mayra Amaro, mother of Gabriela Andrade, reads her statement
The couple left behind their three young daughters, Emma Sofia, Elena and Samantha, aged one, three and five.
Amaro said his granddaughters were in a lot of pain and still needed further surgery
A friend had driven her home, but she then got back into her car.
On Friday, with the girls in court, their drawings and writings were read.
Jennifer Gutierrez, a cousin of the victims, told the court: ‘Who is going to walk them down the aisle if they ever get married?’ Who will dance with them at their quinceanera?
Judge Gregg Prickett, who was presiding over Orange County Superior Court proceedings, had to pause and collect his emotions at one point.
He said, “Those precious girls, I’m sorry,” as his voice cracked.
Judge Gregg Prickett had to pause and collect himself during the emotional hearing
One of the girls listens as her impact statement is read in court
Juana Corrigan, a sister of the couple, also went to court in Newport Beach
One of three siblings is seen leaving court on Friday after sentencing
The little girls are currently living with their aunt in San Diego
Outside court, Mayra Amaro, mother of Gabriela Andrade, said the girls were in pain.
“They are the ones crying after their mum and dad, who are no longer there.”
The girls were seriously injured in the accident and have yet to be operated on.
Their legs were broken in the accident, but they have now recovered physically and are living with their maternal aunt in San Diego with the support of another family.
The family are now suing Coleman in a civil lawsuit, which also includes his parents who allowed him to drive the Range Rover despite his two previous drunk driving incidents.
Family attorney Jeffrey T. Roberts said the sentencing hearing was “probably the most emotional thing I’ve ever seen.”
He said Coleman met with the family privately and expressed remorse.
“It was the first time she had come face to face with the little girls,” he said.
“I know she had heard from the family about what they had lost. Now she was face to face with them.
Coleman’s Range Rover hit the couple’s Nissan Versa, in which they were traveling with their three children, aged one, three and five, at around 7.45pm.
The young couple were pronounced dead at the scene of the crash (pictured) and all three children were taken to hospital with serious injuries
He said the family didn’t hate Coleman, but thought he made a “very, very bad choice”.
Roberts added, “It’s not an angry, vitriolic family.” They did not mention any form of hatred.
Coleman pleaded guilty in June to second-degree murder.
“Ms. Coleman has openly accepted responsibility to the judge for this utter tragedy,” said Paul Meyer, her defense attorney.
In addition to the murder charge, Coleman pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, driving while his blood alcohol level was at or above the legal limit of 0.08% and of not stopping at a hit-and-run with injury and death. .
She also pleaded guilty to counts of impaired driving and driving with a blood alcohol level over the legal limit resulting from an arrest on August 16, 2020.
Had the case gone to trial, Coleman could have been sentenced to at least 42 years and eight months.
“We recognize the difficult legal appeal in a very tragic case involving a 22-year-old young woman and the truly horrific results of drunk driving,” Meyer said.
“We appreciate the judge’s wisdom in balancing the very sad tragedy with Grace Coleman’s age, full acceptance of responsibility and a strong rehabilitation along with her year of selfless community service while in custody.”