Helen Measures is not guilty of anything whatsoever.
So says the British justice system.
Helen’s name has meandered in and out of the news over the past month, relating to a collision back in July 2012. Helen Measures was overtaking two cyclists on a bend and ‘suddenly encountered’ two cyclists coming in the opposite direction. The rear oncoming cyclist was 21 year old Denisa Perinova, who h
ad only been cycling for a few days was an experienced cyclist and had been cycling from a young age. Denisa lost control whilst trying to evade 50mph worth of Mini on the wrong side of the road (it actually looks like she clipped the back of her boyfriend Ben Pontin’s cycle after he braked hard), fell into the path of Helen, and was killed.
Key elements here:
- The entire incident took place in Denisa’s lane – Helen had overtaken on a presumably blind bend, into a space she could not see (or did not look to see) was clear.
- Helen was ‘surprised’ to see cyclists coming towards her as she was in the opposite lane, and admitted that she therefore did not take them into account when deciding whether it was safe to overtake. When she did see them, she claimed she could still have stopped in time, but decided it was ‘safer’ to continue.
- Denisa lost control because of the threatening presence of Helen car, in a place where it shouldn’t have been. Ben described Helen’s attempt overtake as a “stupid manoeuvre” leaving him and Denisa just a “tiny gap”.
- Helen is a well regarded doctor in the field of cancer research, whilst Denisa was a waitress. That is absolutely not a key element, but every single report I’ve seen has had it in the opening paragraph. Along with Helen crying lots during the trial. And the fact she went to church on a weekly basis.
Anyway, the jury took three hours to decide Helen was not guilty of causing death by careless driving.
Politely, that’s insane.
To be absolutely clear, this is not about the sentence. The jury were asked to decide:
- Did Denisa die because of Helen’s driving? Well, she was thrown 15 feet after an impact from a tonne of metal travelling at 50mph and died from severe head injuries. Tick.
- Was Helen’s driving careless, even if only because of ‘momentary attention with no aggravating factors’ (quoting from sentencing guidelines)? Helen overtook on a bend, into a space she could not see to be clear, and did not stop when she saw that the space was not clear even though she said she could have done so. Apparently, this wasn’t careless or inconsiderate.
For the record, if the verdict had been the other way, it looks like the sentence would have been some kind of community order coupled with a temporary driving ban and some additional driver training. That feels about right – Helen might have killed Denisa, but it certainly wasn’t through malice and she’s clearly distraught about it. I still don’t want her driving anywhere near me though until she’s learnt how to overtake safely.
I don’t really see the solution here though. The problem with trial by jury for car vs cycle cases is that pretty much everyone will drive, whereas only a couple will cycle. The group mind thinks ‘I’ve had some close calls too, Helen was just unlucky that this time someone was in the way; I can empathise with her and excuse that’.
And yet another person dies on British roads, with not even a frown from the justice system.
I wrote the paragraphs above at the beginning of this month, but didn’t publish them. There were a lot of articles written at the time making very similar points, and this would just have been another page in the mix; another step on the way to turning a person’s life into a statistic.
However, yesterday (Oct 28th), Denisa’s parents published an open letter in the Henley Standard. You can (and should) read it here. It’s powerful stuff, and is a useful reminder for everyone that a few seconds of daydreaming whilst driving shatters lives.
They go on to mention a number of aspects of the trial that were never covered at the time, and which seem horrendous. I’ll paraphrase:
- Helen’s defence (an unpleasant individual named Janick Fielding, about which more later) stated that Denisa was an inexperienced cyclist and road user – she’d only been riding a few days. These are the facts that were presented to the jury and reported by the media. They’re also false. She’d been cycling regularly since a young age, held a UK driving license, and drove every day to work.
- There were over ten character references for Helen read out as part of the defence, including her cancer work and weekly church visits.
- The judge, when summing up, emphasised Helen’s good character to the jury again.
What is this; ancient Rome? Was the shade of Cicero strutting that courtroom as Helen was elevated as a paragon and the characters of Denisa and Ben trampled into the dust? Did no-one in that jury manage to spot that behind this pretty-baby contest someone had driven at high speed, on the wrong side of the road, round a blind bend, and killed someone?
Her defence lawyer, the aforementioned Janick Fielding of Argent Chambers, made the closing statement:
“Ben Pontin said it was a stupid decision to overtake. It was nowhere near as stupid as Mr Pontin’s decision to put Denisa Perinova on that bike in the first place. He ought not to have been so reckless with the life of his young girlfriend and he failed with terrible consequences.”
Such casual, chauvinistic cruelty.
Helen was cleared of all charges on what would have been Denisa’s 23rd birthday.