Sydney Morning Herald Thursday 8 January 2004

Sorry young driver's court ordeal ends


By Valerie Lawson and Natasha Wallace

As most of Sydney drifted through another sweaty January day, a small court in Glebe was the setting for scenes of almost unbearable sadness.

In the process, no one really won, and many lost.

In the Bidura Children's Court yesterday, a young woman, now 18, sobbed uncontrollably, with so much anguish that only the stoniest heart was not touched.

On one side of the courtroom her parents, and her friends' parents, sat with faces revealing just how much pain spreads out to so many families when young men and women are killed on the road.

One dreadful mistake last Easter led to the deaths of two schoolboys, and the woman being charged with two counts of dangerous driving causing death and one of negligent driving.

Yesterday, Magistrate Elaine Truscott dismissed the dangerous driving charges but decided to continue hearing evidence on the charge of negligent driving.

Throughout the day, the young woman wept in her father's arms. Her mother, sitting one row behind, was also forced to watch her child break down many times as the court heard of the night when she and her friends from Queenwood School for Girls attended an 18th birthday party at Ingleside for two boys from St Ignatius, Riverview.

At the party, the young woman realised that one of her girlfriends, who was meant to drive them home, was drinking, as was another school friend, the owner of the car in which they had travelled to the party. "I assumed straightaway . . . that she had too much to drink." She approached the owner of the car and said "look, I'll drive home".

The owner of the VW Golf had already promised three more girlfriends a lift home, along with two Riverview boys who were guests at the party, Sam Turner, 18, and Billy O'Connor, 17. The girls were angry that they had not been given a lift to the party, and had to spend money on a cab.

The accused herself offered to travel home in the boot of the car because she felt bad about upsetting the three girls.

"I was uncomfortable about taking so many people," she told the court. "But I didn't want to seem like a loser."

The car's owner reassured her, saying she had carried people in the boot before.

The owner said she would get in the boot, but the accused told the court that "one of the last things I said before we got in the car [was], 'if anything the boys get in the boot and the girls get in the back".

Turning to the parents of Sam Turner, one of the two boys killed, she said: "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

The accused had known the car's owner "all my life. I had respect for her, I still do. I knew . . . she would never put me in a dangerous position".

On the drive home, with the passengers singing to the radio, the accused was extremely worried about the conditions.

It had been raining and the road was wet.

As the car came out of a bend on a stretch of Mona Vale Road, she found to her horror that the wheel had locked.

The car spun out of control.

Yesterday, as the police prosecutor, Gary Charlesworth, repeatedly asked the young woman to recount the circumstances of the night, she sobbed: "I just want this over."

Close to 4pm, after several hours of evidence, the magistrate dismissed the charge of negligent driving, saying the woman was "no more morally or legally culpable than anyone else who occupied the vehicle for the events that unfolded that night".

Outside the court, the parents of the students involved were tearful yet relieved that part of their pain was over.

Sam's father, Paul Turner, said that having to sit through the proceedings to find out what actually happened that night was "traumatic".

"I think they all did make a mistake of getting in the car with so many . . . but Sam and Billy paid the ultimate price," he said.

The girl's father said he felt "gutted" after three days watching his daughter continually break down.

He blamed the incident on "extreme peer pressure".

Her mother described the girl as a "straight shooter" who had been traumatised by the accident.

Billy's mother, Julie O'Connor, who did not attend the court, said she did not blame the driver of the car.

She was "relieved" the magistrate had dismissed the charges.

"It's just a string of events that led to a terrible, terrible tragedy that has affected so many lives. [The woman] was neither the owner of the car nor the designated driver or the one who had promised the lifts . . . she was just the one who was left at the end of the night to take responsibility."


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