A Co Armagh part-time fireman who knocked down and killed an 89-year-old grandmother when he reversed too quickly around a corner was handed a six month jail sentence today (Monday).
However, John Kinsella (37) walked free from Newry Crown Court, sitting in Antrim, after Judge Neil Rafferty QC suspended the sentence for three years.
He told the married father-of-three “I have come to the conclusion that no sentence of imprisonment measured in months could equate to the value of the life of Mrs Coyle nor the loss that her family suffered.
“I have equally come to the conclusion that this is an exceptional case both in terms of the culpability in the driving of the defendant and the personal mitigation that he has,” said the judge, who also imposed a two year driving ban.
Two months ago Kinsella, from the Clay Road in Keady, entered a guilty plea to causing the death of 89-year-old Claire Coyle by driving dangerously on the Victoria Road/Clay Road in Keady on 14 August 2018.
In an agreed basis of plea document submitted to the court, prosecution QC David McDowell outlined that just before 6.30pm that day Kinsella parked his Toyota Landcruiser jeep outside McGrane’s shop on Victoria Street and got out to speak to his friend.
When that other driver left, Kinsella got back into his vehicle and reversed backwards in order to turn into the Clay Road just over 30 feet behind him but, tragically, he collided with Mrs Coyle who had been slowly crossing the road behind him.
A video of the incident was played on Friday at Newry Crown Court, sitting in Antrim, clearly showing the large jeep reversing at speed and knocking Mrs Coyle down, then making a second movement backwards just a couple of seconds after the initial impact.
It also shows Kinsella, a part-time fireman for 18 years, immediately getting out of his car and kneeling down beside the fatally injured pensioner before others run to the scene to help.
Mrs Coyle, described by her daughter as having been “mentally sharp and in good health for her age”, was taken to Craigavon Area Hospital where “her low level of consciousness was suggestive of a serious head injury” and, sadly, she was pronounced dead at 8.20pm that night.
Police who arrived at the scene spoke to Kinsella and he admitted he had knocked her over, telling police he “had not seen her”.
The scene and CCTV footage was examined by Damien Coll, a vehicle collision expert, who calculated it took Kinsella 4.2 seconds to reverse 9.765 metres and Mr McDowell said when the engineer “performed a similar manoeuvre at what he considered to be a safe speed – it took him 11 seconds between the same points”.
The senior lawyer said Mr Coll had also concluded that depending on various factors, “the pedestrian may not have been visible in any of the mirrors when the driver commenced to reverse the Toyota car”.
“The prosecution is therefore unable to suggest that the reason Mr Kinsella struck Mrs Coyle was a failure to look in his mirrors before beginning to reverse,” said Mr McDowell.
During police interviews three days later, Kinsella told police that he would have checked his mirrors but that the view in the central rear-view mirror “wasn’t great due to the spare tyre partially covering the window”.
Kinsella said he thought he had hit a child’s toy or a ball or perhaps a bike so he looked but couldn’t see anything and “actually went to go back again but someone shouting stopped him and he got out and saw Mrs Coyle lying on the ground”.
It was Kinsella who phoned for the ambulance, describing himself as being in a panic, thinking “What have I done?”.
The part-time fireman was further interviewed four months later in February and accepted that he had “probably not” used a safe reversing speed and when asked to comment on his driving, he described it as “poor”.
“The driving can be categorised as dangerous as the reversing manoeuvre was conducted too quickly and, accordingly, without regard for vulnerable road users,” said Mr McDowell, who also conceded that, while dangerous, there were no other aggravating factors in the case.
During his sentencing remarks today (Monday), Judge Rafferty revealed Mrs Coyle’s son had described his mum as the head and heart of the family who had a “wonderful personality” but whose death has left a “big hole”.
He also revealed it was clear from defence reports that Kinsella “holds feelings of guilt” which will likely “stay with him for the remainder of his days” and that he “often thinks what might or could have been different”.
Kinsella, said the judge, was already suffering from PTSD but his responsibility for causing Mrs Coyle’s death had exacerbated that condition because “the marked difference between this accident and those he attended as a firefighter was what he was responsible for this tragedy”.