No convictions over West Coast river crossing deaths

A judge has allowed a tearful Michael Saunders to avoid convictions for the tragic West Coast river crossing that cost two lives in June last year.

Christchurch District Court Judge Jane Farish granted him a discharge without conviction after he pleaded guilty in Greymouth in June to charges of dangerous driving causing the deaths of his two-year-old daughter, Emily, and contractor Barry Petrie, 66.

The sentencing was transferred to Christchurch today, where Saunders applied for the discharge that would allow him to keep his driver’s licence and his job as a heavy truck driver.

Judge Farish decided that the consequences of the convictions would be out of proportion to his criminality, and the interests of the community would not outweigh his personal situation.

She told Saunders: “You have already been held accountable for the harm caused. There is nothing the court can do that will hold you more accountable than you already feel.”

She ordered him to pay $5000 reparations to the widow of the contractor who died. He will have to pay $2000 immediately and the rest at a weekly rate.

The two people drowned on June 9, 2016, when Saunders tried to drive across a flooded river near Harihari. The vehicle, a four-wheel-drive Isuzu Bighorn, did not make it across the Poerua River.

It was his third crossing of the river that day, but on the last occasion he noticed the river was a little higher and faster so he headed up the river and attempted to drive through a channel that was far deeper than he anticipated.

Searchers found Mr Petrie’s body on the beach south of the river mouth the next day, but Emily’s body was never found and the search was eventually called off.

The Crown had argued against the discharge, saying there was no certainty that Saunders would lose his employment.

Judge Farish said she assessed Saunders’ culpability as low. He was making his third trip of the day across the river, a journey he made almost daily on the farm where he worked at that time.

Carrying out dangerous tasks sometimes led to a false sense of confidence, she said. In this case, that led to tragic consequences.

She said that even though the sentencing was completed, she hoped that a restorative justice conference could still take place at a time when Mr Petrie’s widow felt able to do that.

She also encouraged the police to review their policy of not allowing contact between the victims of offences and the offenders. They should look at the individual circumstances.

In this case, the people involved were members of an isolated rural community. There had been shared grief. “My personal view is that restorative justice would have been of benefit to everyone,” the judge said.

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