herald

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Driver weeps as jury clears her of killing pals in crash horror

The crash scene in Athy in 2015
The crash scene in Athy in 2015
Gemma Nolan
Chermaine Carroll
Niamh Doyle
Aisling Middleton

A young motorist whose four friends were killed in a car crash wiped away tears as she was found not guilty of dangerous driving, causing their deaths.

Dayna Kearney (23) was also acquitted of driving a dangerously defective vehicle at the time of the accident in Athy in 2015.

Ms Kearney wept as a jury delivered unanimous verdicts, after just 27 minutes of deliberations.

Some of the crash victims' loved ones, who had been in court for the three-day trial, also cried as the verdicts were read out.

Judge Eoin Garavan paid tribute to the victims and said Ms Kearney would have to live with the consequences of the accident for the rest of her life.

Relief

Minutes later, Ms Kearney hugged relatives and walked free from Naas courthouse.

Outside, her solicitor Frank Taaffe said her reaction to the acquittal was one of "relief tinged with great sadness" at the loss of her friends.

Ms Kearney, a student from Crossneen, Carlow, who was herself seriously injured in the crash, had denied both charges in a trial at Kildare Circuit Court.

Her passengers, Gemma Nolan (19), Chermaine Carroll (20) and Niamh Doyle (19), from Carlow, and Aisling Middleton (19), from Athy, were all killed "almost instantly" in the collision on the N78 at Burtown, near Athy, on January 6, 2015.

The five were returning from an ice-skating outing in Kilkenny when the VW Polo that Ms Kearney was driving veered across the road and crashed passenger side-on into an oncoming VW Transporter van.

It had been the prosecution's case that, although her car was in sound mechanical condition, two tyres were not fully inflated and this along with the heavy load in the Polo caused it to swerve out of control.

There was evidence a tyre had gone flat from a slow puncture shortly before the crash and the defence maintained Ms Kearney could not have known about it, or corrected the car once it went out of control.

The jury had retired at 2.39pm yesterday to begin deliberations and by 3pm, Judge Garavan was told there was a "development" in the case.

The seven women and four men filed back into the courtroom at 3.06pm. The registrar asked the foreman if the jury had reached a verdict on the count of dangerous driving.

"We have," he said, and replied "yes" when asked the same question about the second count. The registrar then read out the not guilty verdicts recorded on the issue paper.

Ms Kearney, sitting at the side of the court, wiped tears away with a tissue as the verdicts were delivered.

Judge Garavan said it had been an "emotionally difficult trial" and "a most appalling and sad tragedy".

He thanked the jurors and excused them from further duty for five years.

For four young people in the prime of their lives to lose their lives on what was a good road was "tragedy upon tragedy," he said.

Shattered

There was a "lesson for all of us" that even on a good road, something "quite small" like tyre inflation could cause "such devastation", the judge added.

"[Ms Kearney] is feeling relieved but still shattered by the events of three-and-a-half years ago," Mr Taaffe said outside court.

"She has expressed sorrow to the families because they were all her friends that died in that tragic accident."

The jury heard the accident happened at 9.45pm on a straight stretch of almost new road, with no excess speed by either vehicle.

The indications were that all the occupants were wearing seatbelts.

The passenger in the van, Mariusz Wawrzos, said he saw the car sliding from left to right two to three times before it hit.

Another driver, Tracey Norton, said she saw Ms Kearney's car swerve and straighten back up. It then "shot across the road" in front of the van before crashing.

The two Polish men in the van jumped out before it burst into flames. Ms Norton went to the Polo where Ms Kearney was screaming.

Bus Eireann driver Mark Fitzgerald said he was stopped by two men saying: "Help the girls, help the girls."

When the emergency services arrived, Ms Kearney was the only one in the car showing signs of life.

Garda Sergeant Donal O'Sullivan said her injuries were so severe that she was not able to give a statement until four months later.

Ms Kearney told gardai that when she bought the Polo on Done Deal in 2014 the ad said it had valid NCT until April 2015 and was roadworthy. After the accident, she found out the NCT cert had run out months earlier.

Gardai examined the disc and said it had appeared to be valid.

Duty

Ms Kearney was not accompanied by a fully licensed driver and did not have L plates displayed.

Prosecutor Daniel Boland BL said every driver had a duty to ensure their tyres were properly inflated.

Roderick O'Hanlon SC, defending, said there was evidence Ms Kearney had taken reasonable care of her car. She was entitled to rely on the NCT cert that came with it, he said.

"What we say happened here is no more than a road traffic accident," Mr O'Hanlon added.

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