Could the families of the six young people killed near Mildura as the result of dangerous driving on the part of Thomas Towle, have avoided the anger and grief they have experienced over the past 48 hours?

The national media has given front page treatment to the outpouring of rage and anger that followed the jury verdicts in this case over the weekend in which Mr Towle was found guilty of six counts of dangerous driving causing death, rather than the more serious charge of culpable driving. Mr Towle should have been convicted of culpable driving, the parents of these young victims said. And the court should have known about Mr Towle’s prior convictions, they and some in the media argue.

Unfortunately, the victims’ families are wrong on both counts, and what’s more they might have been able to avoid the anguish of a drawn out long jury trial in which they have been forced to relive their children’s deaths for weeks on end, only to be disappointed by a jury verdict they don’t like.

This case was one crying out for settlement — one in which an agreement could have been reached between the prosecutors and the defence about the facts and the charges to which Mr Towle would plead. If this had happened, then the events of the past few days could have been avoided.

No doubt prosecutors and defence lawyers in this case contemplated such an action, but the victims’ families were having none of this. Instead of acknowledging the difficulty of proving a culpable driving charge in this case, and letting the prosecutors agree to a short plea hearing that would have only gone a few days, and after which Mr Towle would have been sentenced for dangerous driving causing death, raw emotion appears to have overcome the victims’ families in their desire to see Mr Towle convicted of culpable driving.

Culpable driving in the circumstances of this case seems to have been very difficult for the prosecution to prove. It was always going to be difficult for a jury to convict Mr Towle of culpable driving – that is driving in a criminally negligent way – given that the road conditions where the accident happened were so substandard and that besides speeding, there was no other evidence to suggest Mr Towle had had anymore than a momentary lapse of judgement.

Secondly, while it is totally fallacious of the victims’ families to suggest that Mr Towle’s prior convictions should have been put before the jury, even if this had happened, it would not have helped the prosecution anyway. Mr Towle’s previous convictions do not relate to his manner of driving. Mr Towle’s prior convictions are for driving while disqualified, driving an unregistered vehicle, fraudulently using a number plate and identification and driving a vehicle with ineffective headlights. He has not even been convicted of the most minor offence related to the manner of driving – careless driving.

What is disturbing about this case is the comments by some of the victims’ families yesterday that the verdict of the court in the Towle trial devalued the lives of their deceased children. All lives are inherently infinitely valuable, and nothing the justice system can do will change that fact.

Peter Fray

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