Downpatrick woman Monica McAlister had been involved in work calls around the time of the incident which claimed the life of young dad and motorcyclist Matthew Arnold (24).
Today, Newry Crown Court heard his widow Ciara prayed for McAlister and wrote: “I’m certain that she’s not a bad person and never intended to do what she did.”
Passing sentence, Judge Gordon Kerr KC told McAlister (53), the assistant director for older people’s services in the Southern Health Trust, that she had “chose to prioritize a work-related call over performing a potentially dangerous maneuver safely.”
The judge said while an eight-month jail sentence was justified, as the sentence was below 12 months, he was duty bound to consider the imposition of an enhanced combination order as a “direct alternative to custody.”
He told former nurse McAlister that, given her early guilty plea, clear remorse, her “excellent work record” and the fact that the family of Mr Arnold have said they “hold no hatred in our hearts for her”, the justice of the case Could be met with 50 hours of community service and a 12-month probation order.
McAlister, from the Ballykilbeg Road in Downpatrick, had earlier entered a guilty plea for causing the death of Matthew Arnold on April 7, 2020, by driving carelessly on the Lurgan Road in Dromore. Mr Arnold had been married for 18 months and had just become a father three weeks before the collision.
During his sentencing remarks today, Judge Kerr revealed he had received victim impact statements from his mother Phylis and his wife Ciara, where they spoke of the pain and devastation at his tragic death.
“Our world has been devastated when Matthew was called to heaven,” wrote his grieving mum. “He was the jewel in the Arnold crown.”
The judge told the women spoke of their faith, the strength they derive from it, and how they hold “no hatred” towards McAlister.
He said Phylis Arnold had written that she “truly feels that for her to live with the consequences will be enough of a sentence for her to live with.”
His widow Ciara wrote that “she didn’t intend to do what she did – I cannot imagine what the last three-and-a-half years have done to her.”
“I do pray for her and hope that she is OK as I’m certain that she’s not a bad person and never intended to do what she did,” Ciara said in her statement.
The judge outlined how the fatal accident occurred at the junction of the Lurgan Road and the Blackskull Road when the Toyota Avensis being driven by the defendant pulled out from a junction into the path of the oncoming Ducati motorbike driven by Mr Arnold.
He was thrown from the bike, coming to rest on the grass verge, and despite an off-duty GP and other members of the public coming to his immediate aid, he was pronounced dead at the scene.
“Catastrophic” head injuries were established as the cause of death and Mr Arnold was “likely to have sustained rapid death and never regained consciousness”.
McAlister told police that, approaching the give way junction, she had slowed down, saw the bike and believed she had enough time to turn right. But when she looked again, the motorbike was closer than she expected and she then “felt a shunt”, her airbag deployed and her car came to a stop.
While neither McAlister nor Mr Arnold were found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time, the police investigation established the defendant had been using his mobile phone during a 56-second call in the lead-up to the fatal impact.
She told police how she had been expecting a work-related call to arrange PPE for care homes in the Trust area, so she “wedged” her phone into the dashboard, swiped to answer the call and then put her hand “immediately back on the “steering wheel.”
Judge Kerr told the court that in assessing the range of sentencing, he had to look at the standard of driving and “the danger that could foreseeably” be envisaged.
He explained that, from his point of view, “she chose to prioritize a call over performing a potentially dangerous manoeuvre safely”, but whether she committed an offense in taking the call is immaterial.
“The issue is having seen the motorcyclist as she confirms that she did, she should have stopped to take the time to be sure of her position and speed before turning into the main road,” said the judge, adding that “the conclusion in the case is that she did not.”
“Her driving was very poor and I confirm that a sentence of imprisonment is appropriate,” he told the court.
Taking a starting point of 15 months, Judge Kerr outlined the “considerable mitigation in the case” which reduced the sentence to nine months and therefore engaged his obligations to consider an enhanced combination order.
He warned McAlister that a failure to complete any aspect of the order, or any breach, despite the fact that she poses a low risk of reoffending, would see her brought back to court and likely sentenced to a nine-month prison term.
He also imposed a 12-month driving ban.