The scene of the fatal crash near Asshurst last August. PHOTO/FILE
A soldier who caused the death of a Masterton man while learning to drive an Army truck has escaped conviction – an outcome which has pleased the man’s widow.
But Joan Carter, whose husband Warren Carter, 71, died after the collision near Ashhurst last August, has criticised the Army for a lack of compassion towards her and her family in the crash’s aftermath.
Dayne Jordan Pennington, 24, yesterday walked free from Palmerston North District Court, after Judge Jim Large discharged him without conviction and did not impose a driving disqualification on a charge of careless driving causing death, which Pennington admitted.
Following the decision, Pennington was hugged by Mrs Carter, who was in the car with her husband when it collided with the Unimog at the intersection of Watershed Rd and Ashhurst Rd.
“I’m thrilled with the outcome,” she told the Times-Age.
“It’s what I hoped for, but not what I expected.”
In court, Mrs Carter had read out a moving victim impact statement in which she talked about her husband’s heavy community involvement and how their daughter, the youngest of six, had been robbed of the opportunity to “have her dad walk her down the aisle” at her upcoming wedding.
Another daughter had to live with the trauma of driving through the fateful intersection daily.
Despite facing financial hardship because of losing her “husband and friend of more than 50 years”, Mrs Carter said she did not want the young soldier’s future tarnished with a conviction.
“However, I’m angry at the Army and hold them responsible for the gaping hole the accident has left in all aspects of my life.”
The Army had shown a “lack of courtesy and compassion” following the death, which occurred after it allowed one of its trainees, who had held a full licence for only a matter of weeks, to get behind the wheel of a heavy truck, she said.
“I want to know that no other family will ever be ignored as we were.”
At the time of the crash, Pennington was on a student driving course, run from Linton Army Camp, to gain his Class 2 driver’s licence.
At 10.30am, on August 10, with an instructor sitting beside him, Pennington made a mistake which his lawyer, Steve Winter, said could happen to anyone.
As he approached the intersection he slowed the truck using engine braking, the summary of facts read.
“When it came time for the defendant to brake for the corner, he missed the foot brake, and instead pressed down on the clutch causing the Unimog to free roll into the intersection.”
The truck would have been travelling between 38kmh and 42kmh when it hit the Carters’ vehicle and shunted it sideways.
Mr Carter died at the scene, while Mrs Carter was taken to hospital with minor injuries and discharged the next day.
Mr Winter said Pennington had written and hand-posted a letter of apology to Mrs Carter.
He also helped the victim with some landscaping and donated $500 to the Foodbank.
A conviction would impede Pennington’s ambitions to join the police force and stifle his career in the army.
“It was a genuine error, a mistake,” Mr Winter told the judge.
“What sets it aside is the tragic consequence for the Carter family and Mrs Carter herself.”
Police prosecutor Sergeant Stu Oram said police did not oppose the discharge without conviction for Pennington, who had no previous convictions.
Judge Large said Pennington had pleaded guilty to the charge at the first opportunity and had engaged in the restorative justice process.
He praised Mrs Carter for opening “up her arms and heart” to Pennington, saying the restorative justice process had ended with “hugs all round”.
A conviction would no doubt “have serious consequences” on Pennington’s goal of one day being in the police force.
He told Mrs Carter that she was a “brave woman with a huge heart”.
Widow slams Army, minister
The widow of Warren Carter has slammed the responses of the Army and Minister of Defence Ron Mark, in a letter given to the Times-Age.
Joan Carter wrote that she had discovered “a strength to fight to ensure no other civilian harmed by the Army is ever again treated with the lack of respect, compassion and basic humanity I, and my family, experienced”.
“To find that compassion and empathy were not qualities the NZ Army valued, or knew how to express, came as a shock… It became obvious that the Army’s way of dealing with me as a civilian was just to pretend I didn’t exist in the vain hope that I would eventually disappear.
“To hear from them that they did nothing because they didn’t know what to do dumbfounded me. Could they have not at least have visited my home to offer their condolences?
“I was informed by the police within two hours of the accident that Warren was totally without fault so the Army would also have been told this.
“Apparently there was no policy in place to guide them in how to deal with me; so, they ignored me.”
Mrs Carter also labelled Mr Mark’s response as “astonishing”.
“I also had a meeting with the current Minister of Defence, Ron Mark, which left me even more disillusioned. “Initially to have no reply to my first three emails to him was astonishing.
“Then his lack of preparation and knowledge of the situation, even though he had a file from the previous Minister of Defence, was disturbing, inefficient and condescending.
“His follow up letter on December 21 said he would like to meet with me again once he had all the relevant information. To date I have heard nothing further.”
But the letter ends on a surprisingly positive note.
“Forgiveness has been the most unexpected and amazing gift this tragic life experience has given me.
“Paradoxically, it was given for me to give to Dayne Pennington and I will be eternally grateful for its healing power.”
Mr Mark is out of the country and unable to respond to questions, but a spokesperson for the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) said it “stands by the decision of the court”.
“[NZDF’s] Court of Inquiry into this incident made a recommendation for a family liaison officer to be appointed at times of incidents that involve non-NZDF civilians. The liaison officer will have a defined role and responsibilities.
“A second recommendation called for policy and procedures to be put in place to deal with non-NZDF personnel involved in serious incidents. These recommendations are being actioned.”
There was no concession that Mr Pennington’s training had been inadequate.
“The driver involved in the accident had passed all necessary training required and was under instruction at the time of the accident.
“The D17009 Driver Licence and Vehicle Operator course was conducted in line with NZTA [NZ Transport Agency] regulations.”
A recommendation by the Court of Inquiry that the driver course be “reviewed to ensure the correct sequencing of lessons”, had been completed, but no change was made.
The presence of a winch mounted on the front of the Unimog involved in the crash was cited as key element in the seriousness of the crash.
“Winches are no longer fitted to these vehicles when operating on public roads,” the NZDF spokesperson said.