Irish nurse faces outrage at 'accidental' child deaths

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IT READS like the opening scene from Bonfire of the Vanities crossed with the closing scene of the Louise Woodward trial: a dark night in Brooklyn, a fatal road accident, and another foreigner caught up in the steamroller of the US justice system and condemned by public opinion before she comes anywhere near the courts.

Ann Lamberson, 34, an Irish citizen who left her native Derry aged four, is a qualified nurse and ambulance driver. She was driving to an emergency on the night of 30 September when the crash happened.

Half an hour out, negotiating an unfamiliar part of town, sirens blaring and lights flashing, her ambulance collided with a passenger car at a crossroads. Three young black children travelling in the back of the passenger car were killed. The two adults in the front were injured.

Did she run a red light, as has been suggested: "No," she told The Independent yesterday, "I was working, I was slowing down before the red light, then... I can't think, I just can't think..."

Now Ms Lamberson faces three counts of aggravated manslaughter and two counts of assault - the assault charges relate to the two people injured in the car. The formal indictment proceedings are scheduled for next Monday.

Ms Lamberson, who was at the wheel at the time, and her co-driver, tried to give the injured first aid, but were then taken to hospital themselves suffering from shock. Eight hours later, by then discharged and at home, she answered a knock at her door: the police.

She was taken out into the street in handcuffs. "I had the baby in one arm, no shoes on my feet. I asked to go back in at least to put my shoes on, but they refused to let me back in there."

From 8.30am to 4pm, she was kept in the police station, then taken out, in handcuffs, for the benefit of reporters. A crowd of photographers and cameras awaited. "They had their cameras straight in my face, right up to me. The sun was shining directly at me, I couldn't see anything." That was the sequence that was subsequently played and replayed on local television. "They saw me coming out in handcuffs, as though I was this crazed nut."

She was then taken off to a holding cell for the night, "ice-cold, infested with cockroaches" and handcuffed to "14 or 15 other women. It was really, really disgusting."

An initial demand for $100,000 surety for bail was reduced to $25,000 in cash - a sum raised by a whip-round of family and friends.

"The whole thing is foreign to me, just foreign," Ms Lamberson said. "I was going to save and help someone that night." Of the accident, she says" "It's a terrible, terrible thing, but that's what it was, an accident."

Ms Lamberson has extensive family links in Northern Ireland and John Hume - with his wide Irish-American ties - has joined the campaign to help her. The Irish consulate in New York is also closely monitoring the case.

Her lawyer, Michael Dowd, argues that much of the pre-trial publicity and Ms Lamberson's arrest were based on a false premise: that she was not answering an emergency call and therefore had no right to be using the emergency lights and sirens or exceeding the speed limit. That was the allegation made by the police commissioner, who gave a press conference the day after the accident, and that - according to Mr Dowd - has not been retracted.

According to Mr Dowd, however, the tape of conversations between the dispatcher and Ms Lamberson's ambulance made clear that she was sent on a "priority" call - the technical term for an emergency and was entirely justified in using the lights and sirens. A secondary argument brought by the police that she was in the jurisdiction of New York City, and not within the jurisdiction of the ambulance company, and so not entitled to speed was also incorrect, he says.

Ms Lamberson says that she feels "disgusted by them and their system" and will leave the United States when it is all over. "I feel like I was raped of my dignity, raped of my rights."

She says she is haunted by the thought of the mother of the dead children, and could not take her own small daughter out "trick or treating" on Hallowe'en because of the thought of the mother who no longer had her children to take.

But she too has known adversity. Her son died of cancer three years ago at the age of four, and her two-year old does not enjoy good health. Speaking of her children, Ms Lamberson voices resentment that she was portrayed pejoratively by the media as a single mother. "I have a husband and I've been happily married for 10 years."

According to her lawyer, she worked nights and her husband worked days so that someone was always looking after the children.

Michael Dowd says that the charges Ms Lamberson faces seem especially severe. "In 90 per cent of similar cases involving fire engines and ambulances, no charges are brought, and a thorough investigation is conducted before further action is taken."

He says that the severity of the charges and the conduct of the police in the case "at least raise questions", and can only speculate about the possible reasons.

One, he suggested, was the volume of criticism about police laxity in dealing with problems in their own ranks. Ambulances are seen as part of the law and order establishment, even though this ambulance was from a private company.

That, in Mr Dowd's view, might explain what he calls their "rush to judgement".

There was also the fact that the three children killed were black.

Brooklyn has been the scene of controversy after incidents in which blacks are injured by white police. "They are particularly sensitive," Mr Dowd said, "where there is a white driver and black victims."

Raising the question of whether Ms Lamberson and her family, who are of modest means, would be able to afford a proper defence, Mr Dowd said: "It's like a novel gone bad, but worse because it's real."