The mother of the British teenager Harry Dunn has said her promise to win him justice has been fulfilled after his killer was sentenced, but said it was “despicable” that she had failed to appear in court.
Although Anne Sacoolas, a US citizen who was driving on the wrong side of the road when her car struck the young motorcyclist in 2019, avoided jail, she received an eight-month suspended sentence and was disqualified from driving for 12 months.
Dunn’s family had waged a three-and-a-half-year campaign for justice which was cited by the judge as the reason Sacoolas eventually acknowledged her guilt in a British court after a UK request for her extradition was denied.
Speaking outside court, Dunn’s mother, Charlotte Charles, said it was “job done, promise complete” now that Sacoolas had a criminal record.
But she said Sacoolas, who appeared via a video link after her lawyers said her US government employer had advised her not to return to the UK, should have been in court. “I think it’s despicable that she didn’t come over on the judge’s orders … Huge coward,” she said.
“We weren’t cowards. We didn’t back away from the US government or the UK government. We didn’t back down, because we have values. Maybe she doesn’t.”
The family has vowed to refocus their energies on getting to the bottom of the UK and US government’s handling of the case, including uncovering the truth about whether the UK was told Sacoolas was an alleged former CIA officer, and whether this gave her extra protection from extradition.
“Our real enemy here isn’t Anne Sacoolas. Our real enemy here is the US government,” a spokesperson for the family said on Thursday night.
Charles earlier broke down in court as Sacoolas, who showed little emotion, was sentenced for causing the 19-year-old’s death by careless driving on 27 August 2019.
The family had said they were “horrified” that the US government had advised Sacoolas not to travel to the UK to face justice, which in effect made any sentence unenforceable. The judge had urged her to attend the sentencing hearing in person after she pleaded guilty, again remotely, in October to causing the death of Dunn.
Mrs Justice Bobbie Cheema-Grubb told Sacoolas on Thursday that “at no point” in proceedings had it been suggested she was not free to travel to the UK, but that a renewed application to appear via video link had been made last month that made reference to harassment that she and her family had received.
But after further information was sought, and British police outlined security measures that would protect Sacoolas, a different reason for why she could not attend was given, which the judge said was the first time in the criminal proceedings that there was a “barrier” to her attendance in court.
This was a statement that the US government did not support Sacoolas’ appearance, adding: “Her return could place significant US interests at risk.”
In her sentencing, Cheema-Grubb cited mitigating factors – including that Sacoolas was the mother of three young children and had demonstrated what the judge regarded as remorse – but she told her: “There is no doubt that the calm and dignified persistence of these parents and family of that young man has led through three years of heartbreak and effort to your appearance before this court and [to you acknowledging] your guilt.”
Dunn was killed when his motorbike was struck by a Volvo driven by Sacoolas near the US military base RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire, where her husband was reportedly an intelligence officer. She had been attending a barbecue at the airbase and two of her three young children were in the car, which had turned on to the wrong side of the road after leaving the site’s gates.
Details of the moments before and immediately after the collision were outlined to the court by the prosecutor, Duncan Atkinson KC.
The teenager had repeatedly said “Don’t let me die” to a motorist who stopped at the scene to find Sacoolas standing by the side of the road with her two children and Dunn lying face down in the road. He was taken to the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, where he died later that night.
Sacoolas, who had called her husband to the scene and was seen crying with her head in her hands, told police officers who attended that she had “made a mistake” and said: “I was so stupid.”
A breath test was negative for alcohol and Sacoolas acknowledged that she was driving on the wrong side of the road, what she described as “the American side”.
Sacoolas had diplomatic immunity asserted on her behalf by the US administration and was able to leave the UK 19 days after Dunn’s death, prompting his family’s campaign to bring the case to court.
Charles had earlier told the court how her son had been “senselessly and cruelly” taken away from his family, who have continued to be racked with stress, depression and the results of being unable to work.
“His passing haunts me every minute of every day and I’m not sure how I’m ever going to get over it,” she said, speaking from a witness stand directly opposite a screen on which Sacoolas and a lawyer could be seen.
“I made a promise to Harry in the hospital that we would get him justice, and a mother never breaks a promise to her son.”
In a sign that there had been discontent at the highest levels of government in the UK, a former Foreign Office minister who signed off an agreement that allowed the US government to assert diplomatic immunity on behalf of Sacoolas said it was “never intended” to be used in that way.
Sir Tony Baldry, who was a junior minister when the documents were drawn up in the 1990s, told the PA Media news agency he was “horrified” when the US administration suggested there was a “loophole” in the original agreement following Dunn’s death.
“I don’t think it was ever intended, I’m quite sure, when the Foreign Office legal team thought out the agreements, or agreed to the agreements, that you are covered by diplomatic immunity when you weren’t actually acting as a diplomat,” he said.
Reacting to the sentencing, the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said “important lessons” had been learned from the case, which covered what he said were improvements to the process around exemptions from diplomatic immunity and ensuring the US took steps to improve road safety around RAF Croughton.
The shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, paid tribute to the Dunn family and added: “The UK government must be honest and transparent about its mistakes under Dominic Raab’s leadership and learn meaningful lessons from them. Sacoolas should not have been allowed to leave the country and the US should have waived her immunity.
“The ordeal the family have had to endure – made worse by a series of failures in Foreign Office – must never be repeated.”
Northamptonshire police praised Dunn’s family for “shining a light” on the case in their quest for justice, saying in a statement: “Throughout this long process, we have been determined to deliver a judicial outcome for Harry’s family.”