A Dungiven woman has spoken of her forgiveness for the man who drove her daughter to death.
Denise McAuley’s daughter Claire Kelly was a 20-year-old student who was a backseat passenger in a Renault Clio that police spotted doing handbrake turns in Feeny village - between Dungiven and Claudy - on 11 December 2011.
The car, which police had been following, crashed outside Claudy shortly before 1.40am.
Claire was injured in the collision and died in hospital.
The driver of the car in which Ms Kelly was a rear seat passenger pleaded guilty to a series of motoring offences.
He pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and causing death by careless driving with excess alcohol. He was jailed for three years and banned from driving for five years.
Ms McAuley has since met with the young man at Magilligan Jail, as part of the Restorative Justice programme
It has been a hard journey for Denise, but one she knew she had to take.
“I felt let down during the court case and realised I wan’t going to get the answers I needed. So, I approached the court witness service and Victims’ Support and made an appointment to discuss the possibility of meeting the young man,” said Ms McAuley.
She was advised to wait until the court case was over, which she did, but eventually, through official channels, Denise was told the man was serving his time in Magilligan Jail.
“Fortunately, for me, Magilligan has a Restorative Justice programme. They were very good, very protective, and said they would facilitate a meeting. However, it is a very long process and can take anywhere between six and eight months and I thought, at the start, is this a worthwhile endeavour taking this length of time but, at the end, I realised it was,” said Denise.
“It’s a storytelling process where I told my story and they took that to the young lad and where the young lad told his story and they brought it back to me,” said Denise, who was all too aware that at any time both she or the defendant could have pulled out of the process.
Then, Denise was deemed ready to meet the man, who was a close friend of her daughter.
“I went to Magilligan and we went into a room and the staff were great. They got me settled and then the meeting took place,” said Denise.
“I could have pulled out, and so could he, but I needed answers and, at the end of the day, I couldn’t get those answere from anyone else. He needed to see for himself how it affected Claire’s family for his own healing to go on, and that he was accountable for his actions, and I suppose to see if he had remorse.
“I gave him a hard enough time and he took it. I asked him ‘why, why, why? Why did you do this? Why didn’t you stop?’ and he told me the truth. I could hear the passion in his voice and I needed to hear that. I believed him. I said to him I wish it had of been him and he said, ‘I wish it had of been me’, and my heart softened. I mean, here was a close friend of Claire’s who had killed one of his best friends. It is heartbreaking, and I was humbled by him and by his honesty.”
Denise explained the man asked if Denise could forgive him and she told him, not yet, but that was just a few months after the court case was over.
A year ago and Denise said she was in a different place.
“Every time I went to bed, Claire was in my head, so I got in touch with him and asked if we could meet, just me and him, one-to-one. I told him ‘I’ve come to a place where I forgive you’,” said Denise.
“It was wrong of me to hold him back. I want him to move on and have a life and to have hope. I hope he does and that he does something with his life and helps others. It is a hard journey, and people would say to me ‘why are you putting yourself through this?’, but I’m nobody special. I have no regrets whatsoever. When anyone loses someone there are questions to be asked and, if you don’t have the opportunity to ask questions and get answers you feel as if you are in limbo.
“You have to know each and every part of the story. You have to be selfish in order to push forward to get the answers you need. It’s a harsh process but, the way I see it, I can show my family I can do this and this is my journey and, hopefully, I can help them with their grieving process. It’s not about self pity on my part. I had a need and I had to look at that young chap and say ‘I forgive you’.”
Denise also revealed: “I will keep in touch with the young lad and I hope he got as much out of the meetings as I did.”
Denise knows her daughter Claire would be proud of her.
“She’d smile and say ‘good woman’. That’s just Claire. It doesn’t fill the passing of Claire but, if it helps someone else, it’s worth it,” said Denise.
In the meantime, Denise believes she deserves an apology from the PSNI.
A recent report from the Police Ombudsman recommended the two officers involved be disciplined but said the way the police car was driven did not cause the fatal crash.
However, Ms McAuley said: “The way I see it, the young chap driving the car is serving his time but I feel the police officers involved should be prosecuted for dangerous driving. I haven’t received an apology from the police.
“I’ve been very transparent and open, and so has the young lad. Why haven’t the PSNI come forward with an apology? Claire is not just a statistic. She is my daughter.”