10 Aug 2022

'Only the good die young' says judge in tribute to tragic Offaly road death victim Aoife

'Only the good die young' says judge in tribute to tragic Offaly road death victim Aoife

Aoife Doyle, 14, died when she was struck by a jeep near Clara last year

JUDGE Keenan Johnson said on Tuesday afternoon he believes the three-and-a-half year sentence imposed on the driver who was texting when his jeep struck and killed Offaly girl Aoife Doyle is measured, proportionate, just and fair.

Because he suspended the last year-and-a-half of the sentence, 26-year-old Eric Dunne, Bellair, Ballycumber, has been sent to jail for two years.

Mr Dunne, a learner driver who was unaccompanied when his Hyundai Santa Fe collided with the 14-year-old at Erry, Clara on March 20 last year, was also banned from driving for 10 years.

Judge Johnson said some may feel the sentence is too lenient, given the tragic consequences of Mr Dunne's offending.

“Any custodial sentence for someone like the accused who has a heretofore unblemished record and has never been to prison before is extremely punitive and far reaching,” said Judge Johnson.

“I hope Aoife's family understand the rationale behind the sentence and appreciate that their plight and Aoife's death was to the forefront of my considerations when structuring the sentence.

“Any longer period of custody for Eric Dunne would not in my view serve the interests of justice or serve the memory of Aoife.

“Others may feel, that given the accused's unblemished record, the sentence is harsh, however it has to be remembered that the sentence is structured not so much to punish the accused but rather to deter others who might be tempted to text while driving and to emphasise the fatal dangers that such activity attracts.

“I am requesting that while the accused is in custody he is afforded full access to all relevant mental health services and addiction services.”

The court had been told Mr Dunne suffered from anxiety and had failed his driving test three times.

He pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing the death of the teenager, an offence which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, and/or a fine of €20,000.

Judge Johnson said the offending was in the mid-range and attracted a headline sentence of six years, which with mitigation he reduced to three-and-a-half.

Part of the sentence was suspended for five years on condition he enter a €500 bond to keep the peace for five years post-release and submit himself to the supervision of the probation service.

He noted the man's cannabis addiction and said his continued use of the drug as an aid to controlling his anxiety will have to be addressed.

There was no evidence cannabis interfered with his driving and he told his probation officer that he consumed the drug three days before the collision.

He had shown remorse and had a partner who is pregnant and his incarcertaion means he will miss the birth of his child.

“The accused is not inherently a bad person but is somebody who made a very bad decision when he decided to drive unaccompanied and engage in texting. That decision had fatal, tragic and catastrophic consequences.”

Judge Johnson said that like the victim's extended families, the Doyles and the Scullys, Mr Dunne will have to live with those fatal consequences for the rest of his life.

“Tragically Aoife was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the blink of an eye the lives of all those involved were changed forever. There was no premeditation on the part of Eric Dunne, just simple recklessness and a failure to abide by road traffic laws that are designed for the protection of all road users.”

The fatality occurred at about 7pm when Aoife Doyle and her best friend Cara Cronly, 14, were returning from a walk to photograph the sunset.

They were walking along a straight stretch of the Ballycumber-Clara road at dusk and Cara's torchlight on her mobile phone was switched on.

Aoife's was on the outside and they saw the jeep coming towards them and it hit the girl, propelling her into a drain.

The accused went back to investigate and found Cara in a hysterical state and became extremely distressed himself.

A married couple came on the scene, Ethna Kenny and Michael Carroll, and Ms Kenny, a trained nurse, started CPR after they removed the victim from the drain.

Her husband also administered CPR and another woman who came along, Grace Coughlan, also offered to help.

“They continued to administer CPR until the emergency services arrived. Unfortunately there was nothing that could be done to resuscitate Aoife,” said Judge Johnson.

A post mortem said death was caused by blunt force trauma as a result of impact with the accused's jeep.

In a victim impact statement, Cara Cronly said she was left bereft and heartbroken by the loss of someone who was like a member of her own family.

Cara had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and “it is clear that it will be some time before she comes to terms with Aoife's passing”.

The judge praised Cara for her fortitude and the bravery she showed on the night of the tragic accident and since.

A victim impact statement was also delivered by Aoife's aunt Emer Doyle on behalf of the girl's parents and family.

Aoife was an only child who was idolised by her family and extended family. “She was clearly an extremely affectionate person full of vitality, ability and talent. She was passionate about the environment and saving the planet,” said Judge Johnson.

She had experienced a lot in her short life, having lived in Abu Dhabi and had travelled through Thailand, Australia and other parts of the world.

“She was fluent in Arabic and a bright future beckoned for her. The accident shattered all the hopes and dreams that Aoife had and that her family had for her.”

Judge Johnson added: “There is an expression that 'only the good die young' and that is certainly true in the case of Aoife. While her life was all too short it is clear that because of the love and opportunities given to her by her family that her life was a fulfilled, happy and beautiful life. Aoife was fortunate to have been born into such a welcoming, talented, kind and loving family.”

He also paid tribute to those who came on the scene of the collision and tried to help and said their actions were commendable and epitomised the attributes of kindness, selflessness and commitment to do the right thing.

Before finalising his sentence, Judge Johnson said he had no doubt that if Mr Dunne had been accompanied by a qualified driver at the time he would not have been allowed to use his mobile phone while driving.

People continued to use their phones despite a campaign from the Road Safety Authority (RSA) in 2015 saying the devices were the greatest cause of driver distraction.

Making a phone call while driving makes the driver four times more likely to crash; texting makes the driver 23 times more likely to crash; and texting while driving leads to a 400% increase in time spent with eyes off the road.

“It appears that the relentless requirement of modern living to communicate and be contactable has with tragic consequences in many cases, trumped the requirement for road safety and distraction free driving. It is clear that the accused is not the only one who has texted while driving and that the practice is regrettably commonplace.”

He said apps have been developed which prevent a phone being used for texting while the user is driving and he recommended manufacturers roll out the technology to prevent tragic accidents.

He directed that a copy of his judgment be sent to the RSA.

“In conclusion I again want to extend my heartfelt sympathies to the Scully and Doyle families on the death of Aoife. I will be thinking of them on Saturday when they mark the first anniversary of her death.”

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