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Devastated father charged over child's driveway death: 'already a life sentence'

Melissa Nightingale,
Publish Date
Sun, 10 Mar 2024, 2:26pm
The son who died (right) was the 'best baby brother ever' said his sibling (left).
The son who died (right) was the 'best baby brother ever' said his sibling (left).

Devastated father charged over child's driveway death: 'already a life sentence'

Melissa Nightingale,
Publish Date
Sun, 10 Mar 2024, 2:26pm

The family of a 5-year-old boy who died after being run over in their driveway are devastated his father has been charged over the death, saying they are already serving a life sentence.

The decision to charge the father came as a horrible shock to the family after their son died early last year.

According to the summary of facts, the father - who cannot be named due to an interim suppression order - arrived home from work in his van and drove up to a skip bin to empty the day’s rubbish from the van.

His son ran up from the house and helped to put the rubbish in the skip, then climbed onto the bumper of the van, holding onto the rear window wiper for support. His father drove back toward the house and pulled into a laneway in preparation for reversing into his parking space.

This was where his son would normally jump off, but as the father began reversing he thought he heard his son calling out. He immediately got out to check, and saw his son underneath the vehicle.

He jumped back into the van and pulled forward to free the boy, but it was sadly too late. He had suffered severe head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene.

The father has since pleaded guilty to careless driving causing death. He was due to be sentenced in a Wellington court this week, but the matter has been rescheduled.

His partner told the Herald the decision to lay a charge meant they could not properly work through their loss and the feelings arising from it.

“It was just devastating. It’s already a life sentence,” she said. She, the victim, and her other son also cannot be identified, to comply with the suppression order.

“I think when you’re going through a grief that is so unbearable, your mind is not actually able to comprehend anything but ‘we’ve just lost our little boy’ . . . it’s only as time has gone on and you sort of become a little bit more clear that you realise how unfair it is. There’s people out there doing things on purpose to their children,” she said.

The woman said police told her they had recommended against laying a charge, but that the decision had been overruled by lawyers higher up the chain. Eventually a charge of dangerous driving causing death was laid, which was downgraded to careless driving causing death.

A police spokeswoman said the matter had been raised with the Police Serious Crash Panel, which decides whether a charge should be laid.

“Police were assisted by the Crown with determining the appropriate charge in this matter,” she said.

The family lost the younger of their two sons (right) in the tragic incident.
The family lost the younger of their two sons (right) in the tragic incident.

After the charge was laid, it felt as if the father was immediately treated as guilty, the mother said. Funding for his victim support and counselling was cut off. While she and her son’s funding continued, they had to pay privately for the father to continue receiving help for his mental health.

“It was just like one blow after another,” she said.

“[He] is such a doting dad, he would never intentionally hurt our son.

“The charge doesn’t fit because it’s just a horrible, horrible accident.”

She felt as the person who gave birth to the boy, if she did not blame his father or want him to be charged, who were the prosecutors to say otherwise?

“It seems so wrong to me,” she said.

The father pleaded guilty as soon as the charge was downgraded, but the case has been put off again and again.

“We didn’t want to go into a new year with this and we’ve had to because it just keeps dragging on.”

In the meantime, it means more time off work for court, more legal bills accumulating, and one more thing standing in the way of the family moving on with their grief journey.

The decision to lay a charge came as a shock to the family. File photo / Nick Reed
The decision to lay a charge came as a shock to the family. File photo / Nick Reed

The family couldn’t bear to stay at the property where their son died, and scraped together all their money to move to a different place where the memories did not torment them so much.

The couple are fearful the father will lose his licence at sentencing, which will severely impact the small business he owns and runs. They cannot afford for their finances to take a hit, as the mother has found herself unexpectedly pregnant.

The pregnancy - another little boy - is emotionally conflicting for the couple. Excitement is mixed in with guilt, uncertainty, and heartache.

They hadn’t planned on having more children, and the mother was very conscious the new baby was not a replacement.

“This baby will be its own soul,” she said.

Her late son was “a happy-go-lucky boy” who was “very physically active”.

They did not have internet where they previously lived, so he was “just a boy living the old school way that kids used to live”.

He was a keen rugby player and loved his family deeply.

“He was just the light of our lives . . . he was my little boy, he still slept with me every night.”

The funeral was “huge”, and was also attended by police and firefighters to honour the boy.

Rugby season is starting soon. School photos are coming up. Things her child will never do again.

Her eldest started intermediate for the first time recently, and after dropping him off the mum returned to her car and cried her heart out, knowing her other son would never have that moment.

Police and firefighters attended the boy's funeral.
Police and firefighters attended the boy's funeral.

The boy’s older brother does not know yet that his father has been charged. One of the main reasons the couple have sought name suppression for the father is to shelter and protect their older boy.

She remembers him coming home from school one day having googled his little brother and printed out photos of him that had been shared online. She was relieved at that point the incident had only been referred to as a tragedy or “freak accident”.

“I just remember the night it happened . . . he ran up to the main house to call the police. He said ‘Mum, is my baby brother dead? He was the best baby brother ever.’”

The couple have only seen him cry once about his brother’s death, at the funeral. He refuses to talk about the incident, but is attending counselling.

The mother has only just returned to work many months after the incident. Donations from loved ones and kind strangers have helped allow her the time off.

She still has days where she simply can’t get out of bed, and cries the hours away.

“There are still days like this and weeks like this where you just can’t manage,” she said.

“You don’t get over it. You never get over it. You just learn to survive with the pain.”

Melissa Nightingale is a Wellington-based reporter who covers crime, justice and news in the capital. She joined the Herald in 2016 and has worked as a journalist for 10 years.

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