Published: 10:03, 11 February 2020
| Updated: 10:31, 11 February 2020
In 2001, former Canterbury MP Sir Julian Brazier knocked down and killed a motorcyclist while driving on the wrong side of the road in Italy.
Now he is urging Anne Sacoolas - the American woman who is said to have caused the death of 19-year-old Harry Dunn in similar circumstances - to hand herself in if she ever wants to find peace....
Few people can have any inkling of what it is like to kill someone accidentally, as Anne Sacoolas has done.
Sadly, I am one of them.
I was in Italy. I had driven out there with my family and we were enjoying a relaxing holiday in the sun.
One fine day, I left my wife and children at our holiday apartment and went to buy some supplies from the supermarket a couple of miles or so away.
As I came out of a junction on a little rural lane, I forgot to turn onto the right-hand side of the road and approached a tight, blind bend on the wrong side.
I came around the corner and saw, for a split second of horror, a motorbike coming straight towards me.
I turned hard to avoid him, he tried desperately to avoid me, but there was no time and his bike hit the wing of my vehicle with a sickening thud. I saw him fly off his motorcycle and into the road.
I stopped, jumped out and rushed towards him. He had spun some way across the road and his helmet had come off. He lay crumpled and motionless.
That old expression about wanting to sink into the ground came true for me. For a few moments I simply wanted to cease to exist as I looked at my victim, mercifully unconscious but with blood pouring from his mouth.
But I got a grip on myself: I had to make the situation safe before attending to the casualty. So I moved my vehicle, partially blocking the way so that another car coming round the bend would not run over him. Then I used the first-aid training I had learned in the Territorial Army to try to do what I could for the poor man, putting him in the recovery position and keeping his mouth clear of blood. My hands and arm became drenched in his blood.
After two or three minutes, people started to arrive on the scene. I didn’t have a mobile on me — it was 18 years ago, before everyone carried one — but someone called the emergency services.
After some time, the police and then the ambulance arrived. The police led me off and the ambulance took the casualty to hospital. A kind German tourist who was staying near by said he would take a message back to my wife Kate about what had happened. Kate waited at home with the children while I spent a long time at the police station.
My preoccupation with making frantic efforts to treat the motorcyclist had taken my mind off the horror of the incident for a moment. But when he was taken off in the ambulance, I went back to simply not wanting to go on living.
For three or four days we waited to hear whether he would live. He had serious head injuries. All I had going round and round in my mind was: ‘Is he going to survive?’
The thought that I might have killed a wholly innocent man was horrific. I tried to visit my victim in hospital but, struggling with no Italian, was turned away. I tried to do whatever I could to make good a terrible situation.
I got in touch with a leading neurosurgeon whose sister I knew, Professor T.J. Pentelnyi, and arranged for him to fly out to do what he could. But, tragically, just an hour before the surgeon arrived, I heard the news I had been dreading: the victim had died.
As I tried to come to terms with this, everything came back to the bleak reality. A living, breathing, innocent man, called Carlo Civitelli, was dead.
My lawyer told me Carlo had a loving mother, sisters and a brother — and he’d had another brother who was killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver some years before. And now I had killed Carlo.
The subsequent weeks were, by a very long way, the worst I had ever experienced, despite amazingly sympathetic treatment from the Italian police. The station commander told me he had narrowly avoided a similar accident in Britain the previous year, coming off a roundabout.
Nevertheless, the guilt built in me and was a far bigger factor in my mental state than concern at my likely punishment.
It never occurred to me at any stage not to stay around, even though I fully expected to be sent to prison — and in any case, unlike Anne Sacoolas, I had no diplomatic immunity, so that was never an option.
The thing that went through my mind as I read about Harry Dunn’s tragic death is that our stories possibly started out the same.
Anne Sacoolas would have been driving out, perhaps in a hurry, and might have turned unthinkingly into a rural lane and met poor Harry. Initially she stayed at the scene, co-operated with the police and promised to return to face the music. She had the right intentions.
But then she decided to abandon the promises she had made to the police and fled to the U.S, using diplomatic immunity, leaving Harry’s family in a terrible limbo.
His death was an accident. But by fleeing she has compounded his family’s agony, for until she faces trial they can have little hope of closure. But I don’t believe the story has ended there: it’s not too late to do the right thing, for her own sake as well as for Harry’s family.
"By fleeing she has compounded his family’s agony, for until she faces trial they can have little hope of closure..."
Anne Sacoolas is married into a close-knit diplomatic community. The demons that worked on me will be working on her — and, I suspect, will be compounded by the knowledge that her husband’s colleagues will see her in a new light. And that the Sacoolas family can never accept a posting to, or visit, any country with an extradition treaty with Britain.
Harry’s death left his parents, Tim Dunn and Charlotte Charles, with a profound, agonising loss.
This bereaved family has behaved with extraordinary dignity. Tim and Charlotte called for justice, not vengeance, and made it clear that they would welcome a meeting — but only after Anne Sacoolas has returned to face justice. My heart goes out to them.
Their approach reminded me of the Civitelli family. Because of my status as an MP, journalists flooded out to Italy to bang on their door to ask for a comment, but the Civitellis simply said it was a tragic accident.
They were astonishingly generous about it, refusing to give any ‘quotable quotes’ to anyone. I was allowed to return to the UK and told that, as I accepted my guilt, I was not required to attend the trial. If I had been, I would certainly have gone.
While I struggled to continue in my busy job and as a father, strange as it may seem, I never dwelt on the possibility of serving time in an Italian jail, far from my wife and children. At first I was too consumed by guilt to think about anything else, and later on my lawyer made it clear that a suspended sentence was by far the most likely outcome.
She was right. I was given a four-month suspended sentence.
I desperately wanted to meet the Civitelli family but felt the meeting could take place only after the trial. So I returned to Italy and met Carlo’s surviving brother, with our lawyers to interpret for us.
It was a very difficult meeting but he looked me in the eye and told me, through the interpreter: "You did everything you could for my brother."
His incredible generosity of spirit brought me extraordinary solace. His conduct in that meeting will stay with me for the rest of my life.
"My huge regret at what happened will never go away - it has become a reason to help others..."
The most harrowing moment was when he told me that Carlo’s wife had died from cancer not long before the accident. They had no children.
The two brothers had eaten lunch together on the day of the crash. Afterwards, Carlo said: "What I really need to clear my head is a good run on the motorcycle." It was on that ‘good run’ that I hit him.
The kindness I received from this down-to-earth man, and the forgiveness from the family, helped to lift the terrible burden of guilt I felt and left me with a sense of closure, which has stayed with me.
For years, not a day went by when I didn’t think about Carlo and his family, replaying the dreadful scene in my mind. But now I am no longer as haunted by it, although it is still vivid in my mind.
I still pray for his family but their forgiveness meant I could, eventually, forgive myself for what was a terrible, catastrophic mistake.
It has left me with a heightened sense that I owe something. There is no way I can ever repay it, but I must do what I can to help others.
Now I am no longer an MP — the Canterbury electorate relieved me of my duties in 2017 — I have become an occasional volunteer at the chaplaincy at a young offender institution.
The first time I addressed the young men at Mass, speaking on the forgiveness the Church provides, I started by telling them my story and reminding them that, like them, I was a convicted criminal. The guards told our chaplain afterwards that they saw several young men weeping. Certainly, a number of them told me it had helped them in their journey back to a decent life.
Helping others, and facing up to the consequences of my actions, has brought me peace. I believe Anne Sacoolas can find that peace, too, if she can find the courage to face up to what she has done.
"I was astonished not to be sent to prison in Italy and even more amazed by the forgiveness from the Civitelli family."
I was lucky: the Italian legal system took the view that the degree of culpability must relate to the degree of intent: ghastly as the consequences of my action were, with the distance of time I can see that my guilt was limited — I wasn’t drunk or speeding. The horror of Carlo Civitelli’s brutal death came from a lapse in attention, not a deliberate act.
By contrast, I fear there is a growing sense in this country that law should be about vengeance rather than justice. There has been a steady tightening up of motoring law and sentencing in Britain over the past few years so that, increasingly, the seriousness of the outcome is overtaking the extent of culpability.
In Canterbury today, had an Italian done what I did, I suspect he would have received a substantial jail term.
We don’t know what advice Anne Sacoolas has been given and whether that was a factor in her decision not to return here. We shall never know — but we need to reflect on the importance of making justice just.
Nevertheless, whatever the state of the law, whatever the possible consequences, my advice to her is simply this: come back, stand trial.
Even now, I believe Harry’s parents will forgive you if you do that — and whatever the penalty, you will have closure.
I was astonished not to be sent to prison in Italy and even more amazed by the forgiveness from the Civitelli family. The solace that gave me means that, while my huge regret at what happened will never go away, it has become a reason to help others, not a living nightmare.
I urge Anne Sacoolas to ask herself which is preferable: a life living in shame, or a life filled with hope and purpose.
More by this authorGerry Warren