A “bright and much loved” teenage girl sadly died when her boyfriend crashed his car on a rural Co Armagh road almost three years ago.
Zane Brown was given an enhanced combination order of community service and probation for causing the death of Rachel Lowry by careless driving.
Judge Gordon Kerr KC said the “tragic” case which resulted in the death of the 17-year-old, who was not wearing a seatbelt at the time, illustrates the warning that “everyone should realise, and I hope the message goes forth, that the decision not to wear a seat belt can, unfortunately, have terrible consequences”.
Newry Crown Court heard that while she had been thrown from the passenger seat of the Ford Fiesta and came to rest fatally injured on the road way, Brown, who had asked his girlfriend to put her seatbelt on but to no avail, walked away from the crash with minor lacerations to his left forearm.
Last April Brown, who is from from Dorchester drive in Portadown and who turns 22 tomorrow (Saturday), entered a guilty plea to causing death by driving carelessly on the Coolmillish Road in Markethill on September 24, 2020.
While Rachel’s grieving family watched proceedings by videolink Brown, sitting in the dock smartly dressed in a blue suit, white shirt and tie, listened as prosecuting KC Mark Mulholland opened the facts of the case for the first time, outlining how the couple were on their way to get Pot Noodles for lunch when Brown lost control of his car.
It was not raining but the road was wet as Brown drove along the Coolmillish Road, a twisty, country B road which has a 60 mph limit and the court heard how the Fiesta left the road as Brown tried to negotiate an S bend.
Mr Mulholland told the court that having lost control, the car struck two concrete bollards and left the road, becoming airborne due to a difference in height, before landing in a field and coming to rest beside a cow shed.
A forensic engineer had opined that in striking the bollards on the passenger side, it was “highly probable” Rachel’s door latch had released and opened the door but because she was not wearing a seatbelt, she was thrown from the car with such tragic consequences.
Witnesses who came across the crash scene performed CPR and paramedics rushed to their aid but Mr Mulholland said the teenager, who had been talented and award winning drum major with Quinn Memorial Pipe Band, “died tragically from the catastrophic injuries she had sustained” to her chest, head and abdomen.
The senior barrister said there was evidence in the papers that Rachel “only ever put it [her seatbelt] on under duress from her family”.
Turning to the mechanics of the crash itself, Mr Mulholland told the court how Brown’s phone had an app which tracked the car as part of his insurance policy and from that, it had been ascertained he had been driving at or just above the speed limit.
It was of note, he told the court, there were no warning signs to drivers as they approached the S bends and in this case, there was a tragic outcome because of a combination of factors including an inexperienced driver who did not know the road and who was driving too fast for the prevailing road conditions.
During police interviews Brown, who had been driving for 21 months before the accident, agreed that Rachel had not been wearing her seat belt but told police “he had asked her before and during the journey to put it on but she had not done so”.
He told police that when the car came to stop, he got out and “found that Rachel was on the roadway” and turning briefly to victim impact statements, Mr Mulholland said he would not open them but “it’s clear the loss has devastated” the wider family.
Lodging a plea in mitigation, defence KC John Orr told the court it was clear that sports science degree student Brown had “went to pieces” after the accident and that had resulted in a conviction, and subsequent probation order, for possessing cannabis.
Judge Kerr opened his sentencing remarks by expressing his sympathies and condolences to Rachel’s relatives, describing her as “clearly a bright and much loved member of the family”.
Highlighting that she had “such potential,” the judge lamented that “there’s nothing that this court can do or say that will ease the burden of regret and hurt that the family will feel.”
His function, he told the court, was to look at the facts of the case and place it in the correct sentencing range of the guidelines as set out by the Court of Appeal where cases can be as serious as coming close to dangerous driving or as low as a momentary lapse of concentration.
In the case of Brown, Judge Kerr said he was satisfied that his case fell somewhere in the middle because “this was a driver who was not experienced and although not breaking speed limits, he was simply driving too fast for a road that he did not know, in a secluded area when the weather conditions were poor”.
“He was not able to keep control of the car and as a result of that, the tragic accident happened,” said the judge adding that the “the consequences in this case are very, very tragically exacerbated by the fact that Rachel was not wearing her seat belt”.
Judge Kerr explained he was taking a starting point of nine months in custody before he would then apply mitigation and discount for Brown’s early guilty plea.
As regards mitigation, the defendant had a clear record at the time, has shown a high level ion insight and victim awareness and is a “young man who is finishing his education and has a good future”.
The judge said as he was considering a sentence of less than 12 months, “the court is obliged to consider an enhanced combination order” or probation and community service and with Brown confirming he would comply, Judge Kerr ordered him to complete 80 hours of community service and 12 months on probation.
Also imposing a 15 month driving ban, Judge Kerr warned Brown ECOs are “strictly enforced” so if he failed to complete the hours or did not comply with probation, “you will quickly be brought back before the court…and I will impose the custodial sentence”.