Lawyers for accused dangerous driver Lorraine Nicholson have told a Melbourne court she will plead guilty over the deaths of four linedancers in a crash in western Victoria last year, after a Melbourne judge indicated she was “unlikely” to serve a jail term on a guilty plea.
- County Court Judge Michael Bourke said there were “exceptional circumstances” in Ms Nicholson’s case
- Judge Bourke said Ms Nicholson was “genuinely and highly remorseful” over the deaths of the four women
- Ms Nicholson earlier gave evidence that she thought she had put her foot on the brake at a stop sign before the crash, but the car took off
Prosecutors alleged Ms Nicholson, 66, drove her car through an intersection near Navarre, outside of St Arnaud, hitting another vehicle driven by Elaine Middleton, 75, on the evening of May 5, 2018.
Ms Middleton and her three passengers — Dianne Barr, 64, Claudia Jackson, 71 and Margaret Ely, 74 — died in the crash.
The women had been returning from a linedancing afternoon at St Arnaud, west of Bendigo.
County Court Judge Michael Bourke said there were “exceptional circumstances” in Ms Nicholson’s case, and that she was “genuinely and highly remorseful” and was a person of “exemplary good character”.
In brief remarks after a sentencing indication last week, Judge Bourke noted that while the “danger created was high”, Ms Nicholson’s moral culpability was “relatively low”.
Judge Bourke said it was because of a combination of those factors “that I am not likely to impose a term of imprisonment”.
Her lawyers said Ms Nicholson would now plead guilty.
Accused’s remorse ‘well beyond’ what judge usually encounters
Last week, during a sentence indication hearing, Judge Bourke was asked to spare Ms Nicholson from a jail term on the grounds of her “intense remorse”.
Judge Bourke inspected four cards Ms Nicholson keeps in her purse, each with the name of one of the dead women.
The cards have details about the women’s lives, including the names of children and grandchildren.
During last week’s hearing, psychologist Krystal Browne said Ms Nicholson talks to the women and tells them goodnight.
Ms Browne gave evidence that Ms Nicholson felt hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness and had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the crash.
Judge Bourke said the cards of the four women were a way for Ms Nicholson to “connect and reflect” on what had happened.
“The level of the accused’s remorse presents well beyond what I usually encounter,” he said.
The court heard Ms Nicholson drove her 4WD through a stop sign at more than 90 kilometres per hour at dusk.
Prosecutors said she passed a number of 80kph signs, as well as a reduce speed sign.
In her police statement, the court heard she said just before the crash she turned on her wipers to clean a grimy windscreen.
She thought she put her foot on the brake, but the car took off instead, the court heard.
Judge Bourke acknowledged the victim impact statements from the families of those who died, as “moving statements of grief, enduring sadness, distress, psychological impact, anger and frustration”.
“This will not pass for most,” he said.
“[It was] the loss of four fine people who made lasting contributions to those close to them and to their community.”
Ms Nicholson cried and wiped tears from her eyes while sitting in the dock.
A large group of her supporters were in the court to hear the ruling.
Families and friends of the victims were watching the proceedings via videolink from Ballarat.
‘I lost my everything’
The families of those killed submitted victim impact statements to the court, a process that usually takes place after a person has pleaded guilty.
Elaine Middleton’s daughter, Annette Finnigan, said she would remember May 5, 2018 “for the rest of my life, for all the wrong reasons”.
“The pain of knowing I will never give her a hug, or tell her I love her will torture me for the rest of my life,” Ms Finnigan said.
Claudia Jackson’s husband, Garry, told the court in a statement that he lost “the love of his life” when his wife of 57 years died.
For 30 years they had run the family’s dairy farm.
They also volunteered with the Red Cross, helping people get to their medical appointments.
“I lost my everything,” he said.
The court heard Darren Ely struggled to write his statement about his mother Margaret Ely, admitting to “ongoing waves of depression and sadness” especially because of the time the court case was taking.
Gavin Barr said his “honest, loving, caring” wife of 39 years, Dianne, was “loved and remembered every day”.