Belfast Telegraph

Death drivers: Northern Ireland justice system must wake up

A change in the law urged after 'cruel decision' to cut jail term for killer driver

Relatives of Lesley-Ann McCarragher comfort each other outside court yesterday
Relatives of Lesley-Ann McCarragher comfort each other outside court yesterday
Nathan Finn
Lesley-Ann McCarragher
Enda Dolan
Peter Dolan

by mark bain and alan erwin

A campaigner urging stiffer sentences for people convicted of serious driving offences said the justice system in Northern Ireland needs to "wake up to reality" after a killer motorist's term was reduced.

Senior judges ruled that the original sentence imposed on hit-and-run driver Nathan Finn for causing the death of Lesley-Ann McCarragher in Armagh did not give credit for his lack of previous convictions and his genuine remorse.

The family of the teenager was left "devastated" after his nine-year sentence was reduced by a year at the Court of Appeal.

Relatives appeared shocked, with some in tears following the verdict.

The ruling, which also took into account decisions reached in previous cases, means Finn (20) will now serve just four years in jail and the same period on licence.

Co Tyrone man Peter Dolan's student son Enda was killed by a drunk driver on the Malone Road in Belfast in 2014.

"This is shameful. I'm totally devastated for the McCarragher family on hearing the result," Mr Dolan (below) said.

"Yet again we have a family who lost a loved one let down by the legal system.

"I can't understand why this verdict has been delivered given the seriousness of the crime.

"This individual had no licence, no insurance, drove off from the scene and yet denied all charges when first before the court.

"Fourteen years is the maximum term they can hand down in cases like this, but that has never been used once in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it's time they did.

"We have campaigned tirelessly to have sentences increased and now, five years later, we're no further forward."

Mr Dolan said the legal system "needs to put down a serious deterrent".

"It needs to wake up and look at how decisions like this affect real families who have already been through so much trauma," he said.

"In this case, if anything, there would have been a case for challenging the original sentence as unduly lenient." With next week marking the third anniversary of Lesley-Ann's death, her family described how their pain is still raw.

They said yesterday: "That pain has been exacerbated by the cruel decision today to allow her killer's sentence to be reduced."

Claiming Finn has never shown any genuine remorse, the family branded his regret "self-serving".

"Clearly little value has been placed on the life of our Lesley-Ann," they said.

"There is an urgent need to review the sentencing framework to ensure that effective deterrent sentences are delivered.

"The system is very clearly slanted towards the offender.

"Victims - and those left behind to grieve in their absence - fall very low on the list."

They added: "The parting comment of the appeal judge that no sentence will ever bring Lesley-Ann back or lessen our pain is entirely true.

"But it is no excuse for justice to be so weighted in favour of offenders.

"Our hearts have been broken again."

Earlier Lord Justice Deeny acknowledged the offender's "appalling driving" had led to the 19-year-old student's death in April 2016.

He said: "No sentence imposed by the courts on the applicant can bring her back or lessen her absence for her grieving family and friends.

"It is the duty of the court to dispassionately consider the justice of the sentence for the offences committed in the light of all the circumstances and the previous decision of this court."

Ms McCarragher was jogging along the Monaghan Road when Finn's Saab car struck her and then failed to stop.

Despite being airlifted to hospital she died from her injuries.

Finn, of Keady Road in Armagh, initially denied all charges against him, but later accepted causing death by dangerous driving and driving without a licence or insurance.

A man who was behind the wheel of another car pleaded guilty to dangerous driving in connection with the same incident.

The pair were racing when Finn, then aged 17, drove aggressively onto the hard shoulder in an undertake manoeuvre, striking Ms McCarragher and throwing her into the air, according to a witness.

Following the fatal collision other motorists stopped to lend assistance, the court heard, with some of them approaching the window of Finn's vehicle and shouting at him.

Panicking over having no licence, he drove off and headed to a nearby address where he hid the car in a shed.

Later that day Finn denied owning the Saab or driving, telling police that he had sold the car on.

It took almost two weeks before he admitted being behind the wheel and said he was sorry for what he had done.

Appealing the original nine-year term handed down, defence lawyers accepted it had been a sustained and prolonged episode of bad driving in the category of the most serious culpability.

However, they argued the sentence was manifestly excessive.

Counsel for Finn contended that the mitigating factors of his previous good character and genuine remorse were not recognised.

The prosecution countered that Finn had been deliberately racing another motorist and was determined "not to be beaten".

A Crown lawyer told the court: "Young men must appreciate that driving at this atrocious, appalling level, that has to stop."

Delivering judgment in the appeal, Lord Justice Deeny held that the sentence was "out of kilter" with prison terms imposed in other fatal driving cases.

He also backed defence submissions on the failure to give credit for significant mitigating factors.

Confirming the new sentence of eight years, the judge said: "Half is to be served in custody, the maximum allowed by legislation, and half on licence."

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