A woman who killed a pensioner and seriously injured two others when she caused a motorway crash was spared jail today (Friday, March 23) when the judge suspended her eight month sentence.
Craigavon Crown Court Judge Patrick Lynch QC told 33-year-old Melissa Nugent that while the offences she was convicted of “cross the custody threshold” he was suspending the sentence in light of her genuine remorse, regret, clear criminal record and excellent work record.
Nugent a qualified counsellor from the Clonmore Road in Dungannon, was convicted by a jury at the end of her trial last month of causing the death of Maureen Buchanan and grievous bodily injury to Margaret Ball and Isabella Heaney by driving carelessly on the M1 on 8 April last year.
She had been working as a full time counsellor for the Southern Health Trust but the day after she was convicted, she was “summarily dismissed”.
The jury heard and the judge recounted today how Nugent was about a mile from the Lurgan turn off on the country bound side of the M1 when the car in front of her did an emergency stop.
Nugent had been in the outside lane and had tried to brake but did not manage to stop, crashing into the car in front.
That impact, said the judge, caused Nugent’s car slide into the inside lane and it was there she crashed into a second car, causing it to “mount the kerb and topple over into its right side.”
Inside that car were 80-year-old Mrs Buchanan and her two friends.
Tragically, Mrs Buchanan “received injuries from which she died almost instantaneously” said the judge adding that her two friends Mrs Heaney and Mrs Ball sustained serious injuries “that are debilitating in the extreme”.
Their injuries have had “a profound effect on their lives and indeed, I think it’s reasonable to suppose that they will never fully recover from either the physical injuries or psychiatric injuries that were sustained as a consequence of the defendant’s driving”, Judge Lynch told the court.
Turning to the standard of Nugent’s driving, prosecuting lawyer Nicola Aurelia had previously argued the case fell in the intermediate category of careless driving while defence counsel Des Fahy contended it had been a “momentary lapse” of inattention as she had braked but not managed to stop completely.
Today Judge Lynch described how expert evidence estimates Nugent’s speed when she struck the car in the inside lane having impacted the car in front at around 30 mph.
Commenting that Nugent’s driving did “fall below the standard expected of a careful and competent driver,” he told the court it was his view there were only two possibilities for why the fatal crash happened, either she did not realise there was an obstruction in front of her “until a late stage” or had not left enough space between her and the car in front, “in other words, tailgating.”
“There’s been no explanation given for this manner of driving,” said the judge adding that while the case maybe difficult to categorise, he had concluded it was “more than momentary inattention on the part of the defendant.”
Judge Lynch commented that although he had no doubt Nugent’s repeated expressions of remorse and regret were sincere, those expressions may have been more worthwhile “if you had admitted responsibility without having to go to trial.”
“It’s difficult to see why the case was contested I must say in light of the circumstances that I have outlined and the jury had little difficulty in convicting you on all three counts,” the judge told Nugent.
Against the “catastrophic” consequences of her driving, Judge Lynch said there were a “number of strong mitigating factors” including her charitable and volunteer work, clear record and “continuous employment” since she left university.
“It’s clear from the reports there have been serious consequences in terms of your personal psychiatric evaluation,” he told Nugent, also telling the killer driver he was taking the numerous points of mitigation “into account in your favour”.
As well as the suspended jail term, Nugent was also banned from driving for a year.
Outside the court she declined to comment on the case while Mrs Buchanan’s son Peter said his family “were happy with the outcome” and now the case is over, “we now have time to move on.”
Praising the police and prosecution for all their support since the incident, Mr Buchanan said his mum “was the centre of the family and just one of the kindest people you would ever come across.”
“At 80-years-old, you don’t expect to hear the news that she had been killed but she had lived a good life,” said Mr Buchanan who said his mother’s death left the family “devastated” and something which “still hurts”.
Asked if he thought the sentence met the justice of the case, Mrs Buchanan’s grieving son said that was a matter for the judge:
“It wasn’t about anyone going to prison or not. It was just we were here for justice to see that the appropriate procedures were carried out.”