Belfast Telegraph

Pensioner James Wilkinson avoids jail for 'appalling' driving which resulted in death of his wife in Antrim

James Wilkinson outside court
James Wilkinson outside court

By Paul Higgins

A pensioner who killed his wife in a car accident walked free from court on Monday after his three year jail sentence was suspended for three years.

In addition to the suspended jail term imposed on James Wilkinson at Antrim Crown Court, Judge Donna McColgan QC banned the 79-year-old from driving for 10 years.

She told the pensioner that while the accident that led to the death of his wife Jean Wilkinson was "an appalling piece of bad driving", it was her view that the circumstances of the case and his background were exceptional, allowing her to suspend the prison term.

Wilkinson was told however that had he been convicted after a trial instead of pleading guilty, the judge "would have imposed a sentence of around four years".

At an earlier hearing Wilkinson, from Lettercreeve, Ballymena, pleaded guilty to causing the death of his wife by driving dangerously on Lisnevenagh Road, Antrim, on October 10, 2017.

Prosecuting QC Richard Weir outlined how Wilkinson was driving a Skoda car when he tried to cut through a gap in the central reservation to cross the busy dual carriageway "presumably to go back to Ballymena".

He told the court that, according to an engineers report, Wilkinson would have been able to see oncoming traffic for "at least 250 metres" but that as he performed the "dangerous manoeuvre", a Honda car in the overtaking lane crashed into the back of his car.

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Mrs Wilkinson was a back seat passenger in her husband's car and, along with the defendant and a woman in the front passenger seat, all three were taken to Antrim Area Hospital, with Mrs Wilkinson later transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

Mr Weir said that as her four grown-up children were in the public gallery, "I don't propose to go into details" of Mrs Wilkinson's injuries but that, tragically, "despite the efforts of medical staff at both hospitals", six days after the accident she succumbed to her serious wounds.

Interviewed about the incident, Wilkinson told police he "had no real recollection of what was going on" in the lead up to the impact. The senior prosecutor told the judge the defendant's capacity to drive was checked and there was found to be "no contributing factor by any infirmities that he had or that she was a contributor".

"It seems that the cause of the accident was either a complete failure to see the traffic on the road - which is difficult, in our submission, to comprehend since there was a clear view back of 250 metres and there was nothing in the climate or weather that would've obscured that view - or it was apprehending what was going on in the road but taking a chance and risking the crossing," said Mr Weir.

Judge McColgan agreed that "whatever there was, there's no good or valid reason for what he did - it was an appalling piece of driving".

Mr Weir echoed that by telling the judge that although "one doesn't wish to be ageist in any way, but it seems that it's a tragedy that's been precipitated by a profound lack of attention or a profound inability to comprehend and assess and deal with a risky situation, both of which may have their roots in this man's age".

He revealed that Mrs Wilkinson's now adult children "are more concerned about the accused's capacity to present a further danger on the roads".

Defence QC Alan Kane submitted it's "one of the most tragic and harrowing cases that had come before the court" and revealed the couple had been married for five years before Mrs Wilkinson's tragic death.

He conceded that while it was dangerous driving in that "it was clearly a misguided estimation of the circumstances on the road", there were no other aggravating features attached to what happened that day.

"It's a mercy that no other party was injured or killed and it's a tragedy for Mr Wilkinson and his step-family and his own family that his wife was cut off in these circumstances," said the lawyer, adding that "whatever the court punishment, he had to live with this".

Mr Kane said that in mitigation, Wilkinson had pleaded guilty at an early stage and had a completely clear driving record, despite having been on the roads working as a bread man in the rural Glens of Antrim, a school bus driver and driving a church bus, for more than 60 years.

"It's a tragedy for all concerned that in the very latter part of his life he should appear in the Crown Court for causing the death of his wife," said Mr Kane, who urged the judge to consider the case as exceptional and to "exercise justice with mercy".

Opening her sentencing remarks by expressing "the court's sympathies to the entire family", Judge McColgan said everyone was agreed "this was an appalling piece of driving" and that sentencing guidelines were clear that in all but exceptional cases "a custodial sentence ought to be imposed".

The judge added however: "I find that the background is terribly, terribly tragic and such a background provided support to the exceptional circumstances."

Outside the court, Wilkinson declined to comment.

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