TAMPA — The relatives of a 75-year-old woman who died in a hit and run crash were in court Wednesday, seeking the maximum penalty for the man who caused the accident.
“Because of God’s grace, I forgive you,” said the victim’s daughter, Jessica Santana. “But you still have to deal with the law.”
In the end, the law showed leniency when Circuit Court Judge Kimberly K. Fernandez sentenced Edilmar Palacio-DeLeon to five years in prison and five years probation for leaving the scene of an accident involving death and driving without a valid driver’s license. Palacio-DeLeon faced a maximum of 35 years in prison.
He also was ordered to pay $18,000 in restitution to the family of victim Basilia Santana, most of which will pay for the medical bills of Santana’s husband, who was injured in the crash.
Palacio-DeLeon, 39, pleaded guilty to the charges earlier this year.
Police said Palacio-DeLeon was speeding through the parking lot of Plant City tomato growers Santa Sweets on Oct. 22, 2012, heading toward Airport Road.
As he left the lot, he failed to stop for a 1995 Mercury Villager driven by Santana, who was returning home from church. Palacio-DeLeon’s 2003 Ford F-150 truck struck the passenger side of the minivan, injuring Santana, her husband Rafael Santana and the couple’s adult son.
Palacio-DeLeon got out of the truck and ran away from the scene. He hid in a food truck and asked the operator if he could help him leave the area, prosecutors said.
Police found Palacio-DeLeon 45 minutes later and he confessed he was the driver who caused the crash, his attorney said in court.
Rafael Santana and his son were taken to Lakeland Regional Medical Center and eventually recovered from their injuries. Basilia Santana died a few hours later at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa.
Her brother told the judge on Wednesday that that day was one of the worst of his life. Bravlio Pacheco said he was in the waiting room when doctors came out and told him they couldn’t save his sister.
“I will never be able to forget that day,” Pacheco said. “I closed my eyes and my heart stopped. They told me that they revived her three times but failed the fourth time. I was sure it was a nightmare.”
Pacheco also asked the judge for the maximum penalty for Palacio-DeLeon.
But the defendant’s lawyer argued that no drugs or alcohol were involved in the crash and that his client had no prior criminal record in Florida, the United States or Mexico.
“My client is a very simple man with limited education and limited means,” said Ronald Tulin. “This was an accident. He didn’t see the van. He was scared and he ran and hid.”
Palacio-DeLeon is a Mexican national who came to the U.S., worked as a cook and sent money back to his wife and children in Mexico, Tulin said. He pleaded guilty, knowing he can be deported at any time and has asked the Santana family for forgiveness, Tulin said.
Palacio-DeLeon declined to make a statement at the sentencing. During the hearing, he kept his head down and didn’t even glance at Santana’s family seated behind him.
Even as he was being fingerprinted then led out of the courtroom, Palacio-DeLeon kept looking down, toward the floor and the chains around his ankles.