In the courts: Drink-driver who killed is saved by victim's father

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The Independent Online
A Cambridge student who killed two of his friends in a drink-drive accident avoided going to jail after an emotional appeal from the father of one of the victims. But, says Andrew Buncombe, campaigners claim the judge has made a mistake.

John Were had been drinking quite heavily at a 21st birthday party, but it was late and he and his friends wanted to get home. He did not want to drive but his friends persuaded him, and the six of them clambered into his Volkswagen Golf.

On a bend of a narrow road near Mapledurham, Oxfordshire, the car careered into a tree. The 21-year-old Cambridge undergraduate was unhurt but Jonathan Sage, 21, and Lisa Cohen, 19, were killed instantly. Simon Dixon, 21, received multiple injuries, while Jonathan Messum, 21, and Ross Elder, 21, both suffered broken arms.

Yesterday, Were, of Walton Hill, Newbury, Berkshire, appeared at Oxford Crown Court having pleaded guilty to two counts of causing death by careless driving with excess alcohol, in the accident last July.

He could have received a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, but David Sage, father of Johnathan, said in court that he did not want to see Were sent to jail.

"It would not help us at all. I feel no feelings of retribution to John," he said. "I know in my heart of hearts that my son had some degree of responsibility for what happened and I would not like to see John go to prison. My wife is of absolutely the same opinion." The father of one of the injured passengers, Air Vice-Marshal Ronald Elder, was also in court to support Were.

Having heard Mr Sage's appeal, Judge Charles Harris said he thought there were exceptional circumstances and that sending Were to jail would only exacerbate his "lifelong anguish". He sentenced him to an 18-month term suspended for 12 months. "This sentence is not normal for a person who commits an offence of this kind but the circumstances are exceptional and justice does not call for an immediate prison sentence," he said.

After the hearing Were, a second-year English student who was three times over the alcohol limit, said he was relieved by the decision. "I thought I was going to go to prison."

But Maria Cape, spokeswoman for the Campaign Against Drinking and Driving, said yesterday: ."I am very surprised about this. Not only must the father of the dead man be very forgiving but I think the judge is wrong. The people killed in this tragedy were passengers in the car. On other occasions it could be people walking on the road. I think the judge is sending out the wrong message. I certainly think [Were] should have gone to jail."

The group is seeking to reduce the legal alcohol limit for driving from 80mg to 20mg per 100ml of blood.