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Judge weighs fate of driver in deadly Selmon Expressway crash

Amber Perera is responsible for the 2017 crash that killed a family of three. She hopes to avoid a life sentence. The judge is still deciding.
Amber Perera looks out at the courtroom audience during her sentencing hearing at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Perera caused a fatal crash on the Selmon Expressway in Tampa in August, 10, 2017 that killed Rita and Luiz Felipak and their 8-year-old daughter Giorgia Felipak. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Oct. 18

TAMPA — When police officers showed up to his door that day two years ago, Michael Ciranni figured his daughter Rita was in some sort of trouble. When the officers asked to come inside, he knew something terrible had happened.

There had been a crash on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. Rita Felipak, 29, was dead, and so were her husband Luiz, 41, and their 8-year-old daughter Giorgia.

Michael Ciranni recalled that 2017 day while testifying in a courtroom on Friday. Then he asked a judge to put the driver responsible for their deaths, Amber Perera, in prison for the rest of her life.

“You’ve taken from my family everything we’ve ever strived to have,” Ciranni said. “I can’t forgive you. There is no forgiveness for this.”

Perera, 31, sat hunched at the defense table and sobbed as the father spoke.

Prosecutors also asked for a life sentence. Perera and her attorney asked for mercy. After a day of emotional testimony, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella said he needed the weekend to mull over what he’d heard.

He has much to consider.

Michael Ciranni, father of the late Rita Felipak, testifies in court Friday in Tampa during the sentencing hearing of Amber Perera, who caused a fatal crash on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in 2017 that killed Rita Felipak, her husbanda Luiz and their 8-year-old daughter Giorgia. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Luiz Felipak, left, Rita Felipak, right, and daughter Giorgia, 8, were all killed in a 2017 crash on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. [Times]

Perera pleaded guilty last month to nine charges, including three counts of DUI manslaughter and one count of leaving of the scene of a crash involving death, leaving herself at the mercy of the court.

But at times, Friday’s sentencing hearing felt more like a trial as the state and defense attorney Hubbell Lawson both put on their cases.

Perera was speeding east in a Kia sedan on the afternoon of Aug. 10, 2017 when she slammed into the back of the Felipaks’ Hyundai at about 100 mph. The force of the crash caused the sedan to careen across the grassy median and into the westbound lanes, where it struck a Jeep and an Infiniti. The Felipaks’ car caught fire. All three died at the scene.

Perera’s car spun out in the median, then she regained control, accelerated and kept driving east, stopping about two miles down the road after a tire came off her car.

RELATED: Despite rescue efforts, three die in Selmon Expressway crash

She told a witness afterward that she had a seizure. But Tampa police officers believed she performed field sobriety exercises poorly and suspected she was impaired by prescription drugs. They got a warrant to draw her blood, but had to do it again after Perera hid the vials containing the first blood sample in her underwear.

The second sample showed her blood-alcohol level was 0.10. A driver is presumed impaired under Florida law at 0.08 or higher. Tampa police Officer Jacob Gonzalez testified Friday that he estimated Perera’s blood-alcohol level could have been as high as 0.226 at the time of the crash.

More testing revealed Perera also had three cannabis-related compounds in her system ― two of the compounds had concentrations high enough that would likely have had an effect on Perera’s brain, according to testimony.

The Jeep’s driver, Tracy Lee Kelly of Seminole, limped to the stand Friday and recounted the crash and its aftermath.

Kelly recalled seeing two cars speeding across the median toward her. Then the Felipaks’ car crashed into her Jeep, rolled over and caught fire. Kelly couldn’t move her legs, but still managed to get out of her Jeep and began to crawl to get a safe distance from the Felipaks’ burning car when bystanders picked her up and carried her away.

Wiping her tears with a tissue, Kelly said the crash severely damaged her spinal cord, robbing her of feeling in her legs. She takes medication that barely dulls severe, chronic pain. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She still has nightmares about that day.

“I hope that at some time down the line I’ll be able to forgive you through my God,” Kelly told Perera. “You deserve to spend the rest of your life locked up because of the lives you have taken away.”

Assistant State Attorney Camaria Pettis-Mackle helps Tracy Kelly off of the witness stand of a Tampa courtroom on Friday during a sentencing hearing for Amber Perera. Kelly suffered a severe spinal cord damage in a chain reaction crash on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in 2017 that killed a family of three. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

Sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of at least 35 years. Perera’s attorney asked the judge to instead sentence his client to 20 years in prison, followed by 15 years probation. The attorney cited Perera’s lack of a criminal record and lack of intent to hurt anyone that day.

“I do take issue when I hear people trying to paint her as a vile, unrepentant person,” Losson said. “I’ve represented people like that. This girl is not that, and she is truly remorseful.”

Losson noted that Perera had been diagnosed with non-epileptic seizures — episodes brought on by psychological conditions — and had to leave her paralegal job early the day of the crash after suffering two such seizures. Perera told investigators she believes she had a seizure right before the crash.

RELATED: Attorney: Driver had two seizures at work the day she killed family of three on Selmon Expressway

A forensic psychologist who testified for the prosecution said the evidence indicates the crash was a result of impairment, not a seizure.

Assistant State Attorney Camaria Pettis-Mackle asked the judge to sentence Perera to prison for the rest of her life, given the severity of the charges.

“The state is not asking you to sentence her for her medical condition,” the prosecutor said. “We’re asking you to punish her for the choices she made.”

Police say Amber Perera was under the influence when she crashed her Kia into the back of the Hyundai sedan, left, on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway on Aug. 10, sending it into oncoming traffic and causing it to crash into two other cars, including the blue Jeep, before bursting into flames. Luiz and Rita Felipak and their daughter Giorgia, 8, were in the Hyundai and died at the scene. [Tampa Police Department]

Kristine Phillips, a close of friend of Rita Felipak’s since high school, said Rita lit up rooms and was a talented cellist who was teaching her daughter how to play.

“I can now say I do forgive you,” Phillips told the defendant, “because that’s what Rita would have wanted me to do.”

Perera’s mother was among the five family members who spoke on her behalf, describing her as a good person who made a terrible decision to get behind the wheel.

Then it was Perera’s turn. Wearing bright orange jail garb, she shuffled to the stand clutching a yellow piece of paper in her cuffed hand.

She said she thinks about the Felipaks every day. She said she was sorry and begged the family’s loved ones for forgiveness. She asked the judge for a second chance.

“I am responsible for a monster’s crime,” she said. “I am not a monster, though.”

The judge is set to announce his decision Tuesday at a 9 a.m. hearing.

Amber Perera, left, cries in court next to her defense attorney Hubbell Losson during her sentencing hearing. Perera caused a fatal crash on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway on Aug. 10, 2017 that killed a family of three. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

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