Belfast Telegraph

Eight-death crash driver jailed

The driver guilty of causing the deaths of eight men in the most devastating crash in the history of the Irish state has been jailed, despite pleas from bereaved relatives to spare him from prison.

Shaun Kelly, 26, was handed a four-year sentence for his role in the horrific crash in Co Donegal in July 2010.

The last two years of his term have been suspended and he has also been disqualified from driving for 10 years.

During the sentence hearing in Letterkenny Circuit Court, Kelly's father Liam apologised on behalf of his whole family to those who had lost loved ones.

"They are very honest and decent people and we are very sorry for what has happened to them," he said.

Mr Kelly said he was addressing the court because his son, who suffered a brain injury in the crash, was not capable of doing so properly.

Passing sentence, judge John O'Hagan told the court that Kelly, who pleaded guilty earlier this year, had been responsible for the most serious sort of dangerous driving on the night of the crash in July 2010.

He said a major aggravating factor was the fact he had been convicted of dangerous driving on another occasion, three years before the fatal incident.

Judge O'Hagan described the 2010 crash as a "horrific tragedy", the consequences of which were "insurmountable and beyond description".

"There was someone responsible for it and that someone was Shaun Kelly," he said.

The 66-year-old driver of the car Kelly crashed into and seven friends and relatives who were packed into his own Volkswagen Passat were all killed in the collision on the road between Clonmany and Buncrana.

"It was quite clear the car was overloaded," said the judge.

"And when he tried to manoeuvre the car he lost control."

Earlier the court heard that none of those in the Passat were wearing seatbelts.

Kelly, from Hill Road, Buncrana, was seriously injured and suffered a brain injury which, the court was told, continues to impact his mental capacity.

He and the other young men, among them two of his cousins, had spent the hours before the tragedy watching the football World Cup final in Clonmany.

Those killed were all from the wider Inishowen area. They were Hugh Friel, 66; Eamon McDaid, 22; Mark McLaughlin, 21; Kelly's first cousin, Paul Doherty, 19; Ciaran Sweeney, 19; Kelly's second cousin, Patrick PJ McLaughlin, 21; James McEleney, 23; and Damien McLaughlin, 21.

During the hearing relatives of the victims outlined in harrowing fashion the impact of their loss, with a number urging the judge to spare Kelly from a jail sentence.

Paul Doherty's father Felix said: "We feel Shaun is serving his own life sentence, we don't believe a prison sentence is needed."

Eamon Sweeney, Ciaran's father, said the hearing had provided the family with the first opportunity to speak publicly.

"Our lives were changed forever," he said. " We lost our wonderful son and brother Ciaran and no words can describe how much we miss him."

He added: "A void has been created in our family that can never be filled."

He said his son had to accept his own share of responsibility for what happened that night.

"It's very unfortunate that Shaun has been left to accept all the blame," he said.

"We wish that Shaun is given a chance in life. Shaun needs all the help and support he can get, not punishment."

He said sending Kelly to jail would only add to his family's hurt.

"Enough lives have been ruined in this accident," he said.

He added: "It's not what we want and would definitely not be what Ciaran would want."

Kelly's father Liam praised the "Christian and forgiving" attitude shown by those who had lost relatives.

"Despite their loss they have given us all great comfort and support," he said.

"We have not heard a harsh word from any of the families despite their loss."

Judge O'Hagan noted the local community appeared to be united in its support for the Kelly family.

"They're not out for blood, they are not out for revenge," he said.

The judge said he acknowledged the pleas not to send Kelly to prison but he said he felt the gravity of the crime warranted a custodial sentence.

The court heard that a witness observed the young men cramming into Kelly's car in the car park of a pub in Clonmany before he took off at speed, spinning his wheels and, at one point, straddling the white line of the road in the village.

The occupants were making a lot of noise and shouting, according to the witness.

Around 5.5 km down the road motorist James Gallagher said Kelly's Passat passed him at high speed just seconds before the crash.

"I thought to myself if you don't slow down you're going to kill someone," Mr Gallagher recalled in a witness statement that was read to court.

Kelly's car then turned through a left hand bend and veered across the road into the path of a car driven by a local woman.

She told investigators she saw Kelly pulling the steering wheel in a bid to avoid her but it was not enough to avert a collision.

The rear of Kelly's car swiped into her vehicle, knocking off the front wheel and smashing the window.

That impact caused the Volkswagen to spin in a clockwise direction and it careered at speed, passenger side first, into Mr Friel's oncoming Toyota Corolla.

While Mr Friel's car was shunted back 18 metres backward along the road, Kelly's vehicle ploughed into a ditch, smashing into a telegraph pole.

All eight men were declared dead at the scene.

Garda sergeant Carol Doherty was one of the first on the scene.

"It was just devastation," she told the judge.

Kelly sat impassively beside his father throughout the day-long sentence hearing.

He again showed no emotion when the sentence was delivered and he was handcuffed and taken away to a waiting prison van.

The court heard that Kelly had a previous conviction for dangerous driving relating to an incident near a beach in Buncrana in 2007 when he nearly crashed into a Garda patrol car while performing an overtaking manoeuvre on a blind corner.

And after the fatal accident in 2010 the qualified lorry driver was also prosecuted for a motoring offence when he was caught without a registration plate on the back of his vehicle in August 2011.

Three months earlier, he had also been warned by Garda for driving a lorry too fast late at night near a crowded area in Buncrana - on that occasion, the court heard, he initially provided a false name to Garda.

Earlier, Mr Friel's brother Anthony said he had contemplated suicide on a number of occasions since the crash and still struggled to control his feelings of anger.

"My whole world has fallen apart and I felt I had woken to a nightmare," he said.

"My whole world was turned upside down."

He added: "How can a 66-year-old man just be wiped off the face of the earth in a matter of seconds?"

A prosecution barrister read a short statement from Mark McLaughlin's mother Roma.

It simply read: "I can't do a victim impact statement as nothing I could write would explain what it's like to lose a child."

Damien McLaughlin's sister Kate said: "Our hearts are broken and minds distracted.

"No words can describe our loss and the hurt and pain which we have to bear for the rest of our lives."

She added: "He's our first thought every morning and our last thought every night."

Patrick McLaughlin's sister Aoife said her family was suffering a full life sentence.

"It's almost impossible to describe what we are going through and the hurt we carry in our hearts to this day.

"We grieve not only for the loss of life, but we grieve for what could've been and what should have been."

She also criticised the way the defence conducted the long-running case, highlighting the pain multiple delays had caused.

James McEleney's brother Robert said: "As time passes, the pain doesn't go away, it gets deeper."

He said the family did not wish for Kelly to be imprisoned.

"We feel James wouldn't carry hatred towards him," he said.

Seamus McDaid, Eamon's father, said Kelly was a very good friend of his son.

"I wouldn't like Shaun to get prosecuted," he said in reference to a potential jail term.

Kelly's neurological psychologist Dr Mark Hogan said he struggled to remember what happened.

"It's very unlikely Mr Kelly will recover a consistent and reliable memory of the events," he said.

He said the brain injury he sustained impacted on his ability to function and his problems had been compounded by the emotional effect of the accident.

The expert said Kelly had suicidal thoughts and expressed a desire to "swap places" with one of those who died.

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