By Sam Tobin
LONDON (Reuters) -A lawyer for Anne Sacoolas, a U.S. government employee who fled Britain after admitting causing the death of a teenager in a car crash in England three years ago, blamed her departure on pressure from Washington as she was handed an eight month suspended sentence on Thursday.
Harry Dunn, 19, died in August 2019 after his motorcycle was in a collision with a car driven by Sacoolas, near RAF Croughton, an air force base in the central English county of Northamptonshire that is used by the U.S. military.
Sacoolas, whose husband worked as a U.S. intelligence officer at the base, left Britain shortly after the accident, claiming diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution, and the United States refused to extradite her.
The crash led to a diplomatic spat between London and Washington, with the British government backing the call for Sacoolas to be prosecuted.
After agreeing to appear in a British court remotely, she pleaded guilty in October to causing death by dangerous driving.
On Thursday, she was given an eight month prison term, suspended for 12 months, when she appeared by videolink for sentencing at London’s Old Bailey court. It means she would only face prison if she commits another crime in Britain in the next year.
Prosecutor Duncan Atkinson said Sacoolas, who had two of her three children with her at the time, had admitted at the scene that it was her fault and she had been on the wrong side of the road. She later told police officers that she had been driving on “the American side”.
‘DON’T LET ME DIE’
A witness at the scene recounted how Dunn repeatedly said “don’t let me die”.
Sacoolas’ lawyer Ben Cooper said she had not personally asked for diplomatic immunity and that her departure from Britain afterwards was “a decision taken by her government”.
He said she had received “extensive death threats” and been forced to relocate on multiple occasions.
“My tragic mistake led to the loss of Harry, and I live with this regret every single day,” Sacoolas said in a statement. “There is not a day goes by that Harry is not on my mind.”
Her sentencing was the culmination of a high-profile three-year campaign by Dunn’s parents to bring her to justice, which even involved a meeting at the White House with then-President Donald Trump. They expressed fury that the U.S. government had told Sacoolas not to attend her sentencing in person.
“Job done, promise complete,” Dunn’s mother Charlotte Charles said outside court, adding that it was despicable Sacoolas had not attended court, calling her a “huge coward”.
Judge Bobbie Cheema-Grubb said Sacoolas’s lawyers had told the court their client had been advised not to attend in person as it “could place significant U.S. interests at risk”.
“The U.S. government does not in any way support Mrs Sacoolas appearing in person at this hearing,” Sacoolas’s U.S. lawyer said in a statement read out by the judge.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the British government had been clear she should return to Britain to face justice.
“We have learnt important lessons from this tragic incident, including improvements to the process around exemptions from diplomatic immunity,” he said in a statement.
(Reporting by Sam Tobin; writing by Michael Holden, Editing by Kylie MacLellan and Elaine Hardcastle)