A row that has been raging between the United Kingdom and the United States for over three years reached a conclusion on 8 December, when a woman who had admitted her guilt over the death of a 19-year-old motorcyclist, was sentenced to eight months in prison, although that term was suspended for one year.
It was back on 27 August 2019 when Anne Sacoolas, an American citizen and wife of diplomat Jonathan Sacoolas, left the site of a US military base. She was employed by an intelligence agency, at RAF Croughton, which was also a US Air Force Communications Centre, in Northamptonshire.
Wrong side of the road
She proceeded to drive 350 metres on the wrong side of the road, for a period that lasted for 26 seconds, before meeting teenager Harry Dunn on a blind bend and knocked him off his bike, at some considerable speed. Mr Dunn had been riding correctly and within the speed limit. The collision was entirely down to Mrs Sacoolas being on the wrong side of the road and basically, on a blind corner, Mr Dunn had absolutely no chance of avoiding the smash. That was the presentation of Prosecutor Duncan Atkinson KC representing Mr Dunn’s family in court.
A witness who arrived at the scene seconds after the impact said the American was shaken, but had admitted immediately that it was all her fault, saying “I was on the wrong side of the road; I have only been here a couple of weeks.” The same witness said that they then rushed over to the stricken youngster who lay badly injured in the road and in a statement said that Mr Dunn was still conscious at that point and had heartbreakingly whispered: “Please don’t let me die.”
Admission of guilt
When the police reached the incident, Sacoolas again admitted her guilt saying she was on “the American side” of the road. Northamptonshire Police began to investigate the crash straight away, with Mrs Sacoolas assuring the force that she would not attempt to leave the UK.
However, under the 1961 Vienna Convention, diplomats and their family members are immune from prosecution in their host country, so long as they are not nationals of that country, although the immunity can be waived by the state that has sent them, if they believe a crime of a serious nature has been committed, for which their national should face charges.
The 45-year-old Sacoolas did indeed apply for and was duly granted, diplomatic immunity, asserted on her behalf by the US administration, and left the country 19 days later; she was never to return. An extradition request was rejected by the US government a month later, despite the seriousness and tragic consequences of her actions, causing the start of what would be a three year diplomatic row between the two countries, with the US doing everything they could to protect the liberty of their citizen.
Family begin fight for justice
In October 2019, Mr Dunn’s mother Charlotte Charles appealed “as a mum” for Mrs Sacoolas to return to the UK for questioning. That request fell on deaf ears. So began a quest by Harry’s family, led by Charlotte, to get justice for her son. They initially travelled to the States in the same month to lobby the then President Donald Trump, but somewhat predictably he was not interested and stated categorically that “the spouse of the US government employee will not return to the United Kingdom.”
Making noises in the States
The then serving Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s attempts at intervention got nowhere, with the family accusing them of a “publicity stunt”. However, this family were not going to be silenced and they continued to push, and push hard.
They went on US television and various other media outlets to get their story out into the public domain. Harry’s father, Tim Dunn explained that at various points they felt they were being pressured and “a little ambushed”; but they stuck to their guns and bravely fought their corner.
Dangerous driving charge but no extradition
Then in the December, the Crown Prosecution Service announced Mrs Sacoolas would be charged with causing death by dangerous driving, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, but a second Home Office extradition request was refused by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in January 2020, and American officials said the decision was final… or so they hoped.
Civil claim keeps case “alive”
The family went down a different route in the absence of an extradition order, very probably to the great annoyance of everybody who seemed to hope it would just go away. They brought out a civil claim for damages against Mrs Sacoolas and her husband Jonathan in the US. A court hearing in Virginia in February 2021 was told Mrs Sacoolas was “employed by an intelligence agency in the US” when the crash happened.
Her barrister said she fled the UK for “security issues” and feared she would “not get a fair trial” if she returned. By that perhaps she thought she might have to face the consequences of her actions, which probably for her would not be fair, as she undoubtedly would be found guilty.
Governments agree to “remote” hearing
Meanwhile, after renewed transatlantic negotiations, a change of the law occurred and it was agreed between governments that Mrs Sacoolas could indeed now appear at a Magistrates Court, back in the UK. Then, unsurprisingly, this was postponed to allow further discussions between legal teams.
Eventually it was accepted that Mrs Sacoolas could take part in court proceedings, but it would be remotely from Washington, after an “agreement” was reached between the UK and US governments to change the “anomaly” that allowed her to leave with diplomatic immunity; even after a fatal accident.
Still no remorse or respect
Despite this, attempts were still made to get Mrs Sacoolas to attend in person, out of respect and to show genuine remorse. The judge presiding, Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb, also directed her to attend; but as was expected, she was a “no show”.
Lesser charge accepted
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) accepted her guilty plea to a lesser charge of “causing death by careless driving”, rather than “causing death by dangerous driving”; but this still carried a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment should the judge wish to impose it, so Mrs Sacoolas’ refusal to come to court could, and many feel should, have resulted in a severe sentence.
Remarkable restraint and graciousness
Mrs Charles may have helped with the final decision by very graciously saying “the family didn’t wish to separate her from her children, it is not their fault.” Many others would have wanted the absolute maximum and then some more besides.
Judge praises family for dignity and persistence
So the accused appeared via video-link, after it transpired, the US government had advised her not to travel. In her sentencing remarks at the Old Bailey, which were broadcast live, the Judge addressed the room, first of all remarking that there was no doubt that the calm and dignified persistence of Harry’s parents and the rest of the family had led, through three years of heartbreak and effort, to Mrs Sacoolas’ finally facing justice.
Then, directing her next comment straight at the guilty party, “you now have the opportunity to acknowledge your guilt of this crime.”
Light sentence explained
Almost apologetically explaining her sentencing, the Judge pointed out that she could not give Sacoolas a community order because it was obvious no enforcement could be carried out; and an immediate jail sentence would have needed Sacoolas to surrender to the court; so she was left with little alternative but to pass a suspended sentence, albeit surprisingly lenient in its length.
Insincere statement read out
In a statement read to the court, Sacoolas said: “My tragic mistake led to the loss of Harry and I live with this regret every single day.” Before adding: “There is not a day that goes by that Harry is not on my mind and I am deeply sorry for the pain that I have caused.” After which she probably left for a nice meal and a few drinks with friends.
The former head of extradition at the CPS, Nick Vamos, said Sacoolas appearing via video-link from the US was “a way of circumventing extradition”, but added that it did “undermine the power of the court.”
Mum’s relief at getting some justice for son
Charlotte Charles – whose behaviour throughout what must have been a nightmare three year period has been exemplary – was just delighted to get some justice for her son and pointed out that they pushed the case for several reasons.
One being that “we have values”; but mainly because of a promise she made to her son Harry, who was too badly injured by the time she reached the hospital for her to say her last goodbye. “I could not comfort him or let him know that I was there with him; so for me the next best thing I could do was to kiss his bruised lip and let him know that I would fight for justice for him.”
Disgust at the government
She added that failing to attend court to face up to her crime was “despicable”, but was pleased that “Anne Sacoolas has now a criminal record for the rest of her life,” which she said was something the American obviously never thought would happen, nor indeed did the US government, whose actions Charlotte felt had been “absolutely disgusting”.
No wish to now ever meet
When asked if she would like to meet Mrs Sacoolas, her response was a very abrupt “no”, saying that the time for remorse is long gone, and any shown now would never have any sincerity after Sacoolas’ behaviour over the past three years.