Suburban Mom Receives Probation in Hit Man Case

In U.S.A. v. Sonia Panell, Crim. No. 14-80 (E.D.Pa), a federal judge sentenced the defendant to 3 years’ probation, rather than 5 years in federal prison, due to a vigorous defense by Hope Lefeber.

Sonia Panell was a suburban mother of three facing up to five years in federal prison for conspiracy to commit murder-to-hire. Her common law husband, Rene Figuerroa, was in jail facing charges of capital murder. It was alleged that Sonia hired a hit man to kill the three witnesses to that capital murder charge in an effort to protect her husband. The hit-man-turned-informant provided evidence to the FBI.

Despite incriminating recordings of discussions between Sonia and the hit man, Ms. LeFeber was able to compile a compelling case that caused the federal judge to reduce the sentence to three years’ probation (including time already served).

Ms. Lefeber highlighted Sonia’s tragic past, which included losing two children and a sister to a house fire, recurring flashbacks from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, and multiple suicide attempts. Sonia also was under the stress of being sole caretaker to her three living children. Sonia’s vulnerable state – when approached by hit man Teddy Culpepper – caused her to agree to his plan. Ms. Lefeber characterized Culpepper as a bully who also threatened Sonia, and who had a history of fabricating evidence for which he was paid.

Expert psychiatric testimony brought in by Ms. Lefeber locked in the judge’s decision. Sonia is free today to care for her children and get the counseling she needs to overcome her past.