No convictions for West Coast dad after fatal river crossing

Michael Saunders leaves the Christchurch District Court on Friday.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF

Michael Saunders leaves the Christchurch District Court on Friday.

A judge has allowed a tearful West Coast man to avoid convictions for the tragic river crossing that cost two lives, including his 2-year-old daughter's. 

Christchurch District Court Judge Jane Farish granted Michael Saunders a discharge without conviction after he pleaded guilty in Greymouth in June to charges of dangerous driving causing the deaths of his daughter, Emily, and contractor Barry Petrie, 66.

The sentencing was transferred to Christchurch on Friday, where Saunders applied for the discharge that would allow him to keep his driver's licence and his job as a heavy truck driver.

Emily Saunders, 2, was swept away and her body was never found.
SUPPLIED

Emily Saunders, 2, was swept away and her body was never found.

Judge Farish decided the consequences of the convictions would be out of proportion to his criminality, and the interests of the community would not outweigh his personal situation.

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She told Saunders: "You have already been held accountable for the harm caused. There is nothing the court can do that will hold you more accountable than you already feel."

Michael Saunders has been discharged without conviction on two counts of dangerous driving causing the deaths of his ...

Michael Saunders has been discharged without conviction on two counts of dangerous driving causing the deaths of his 2-year-old daughter, Emily, and Barry Petrie, 66, near Harihari in June 2016.

She ordered him to pay $5000 reparations to Petrie's widow. He will have to pay $2000 immediately and the rest at a weekly rate.

Emily and Petrie drowned on June 9, 2016, when Saunders tried to drive across a flooded river near Harihari. The vehicle, a four-wheel-drive Isuzu Bighorn, did not make it across the Poerua River.

It was his third crossing of the river that day, but on the last occasion he noticed the river was a little higher and faster so he headed up the river and attempted to drive through a channel that was deeper than he anticipated.

The four-wheel-drive ute that became submerged in the Poerua River on the West Coast.
JOANNE CARROLL/STUFF

The four-wheel-drive ute that became submerged in the Poerua River on the West Coast.

Searchers found Petrie's body on the beach south of the river mouth the next day, but Emily's body was never found. The search was eventually called off.

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The Crown had argued against the discharge, saying there was no certainty Saunders would lose his employment.

Judge Farish said she assessed Saunders' culpability as low. He was making his third trip of the day across the river, a journey he made almost daily on the farm where he worked at that time.

Carrying out dangerous tasks sometimes led to a false sense of confidence, she said. In this case, that led to tragic consequences.

She said even though the sentencing was completed, she hoped a restorative justice conference could still happen with Petrie's widow at some time.

She encouraged police to review their policy of not allowing contact between the victims of offences and the offenders. They should look at the individual circumstances, she said.

In this case, the people involved were members of an isolated rural community. There had been shared grief.

"My personal view is that restorative justice would have been of benefit to everyone," the judge said.

 - Stuff

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