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Can some good come of a senseless road death?

A memorial plaque on seat installed at the Paekākāriki crash site, where Caroline Boyd died when she was hit by a car driven by Nathan Lyon in 2017.

As the country debates whether jailing more people works, one family has confronted the tough realities of punishing offenders. And as Mike White discovers, in their own remarkable way, they’ve taken matters into their own hands.

When it was over, when Nathan Lyon had been sentenced to jail and taken away; when the judge in her robes had swept out; when the lawyers had shuffled their papers into briefcases; when the reporters had finished typing; there were just sobs. Sobs of loss and love and bewilderment. 

On one side of Courtroom 3 in the Wellington High Court were the family and friends of Caroline Boyd. A top public servant and energetic community contributor, 56-year-old Boyd and husband Tony Cooke had three adult children, Tim, Becky and Hamish. Fifteen months earlier, on a flawless Sunday morning, she’d been out running in Paekākāriki, north of Wellington, where the family had a bach. Around 10.30am, when she was less than a kilometre from home, a car roared up Wellington Rd, engine screaming, gravel spewing in its wake. The car’s rear slewed out to the right, then back towards the kerb, before the vehicle slid across the road, hitting and killing Caroline Boyd as she ran along the footpath.

The driver was Nathan Lyon. He was 36, had amassed 35 driving infringements in 15 years, and had been disqualified from driving seven times.

Caroline Boyd.

On the morning of 19 March 2017, his licence was still suspended, but Lyon decided to drive to the nearby shops with his 10-year-old stepdaughter, telling her he had a fast car. That car was an unregistered, unwarranted, illegally modified, high-performance Mazda RX-7 twin-turbo, with old and badly cracked rear tyres. When he reached the store, Lyon discovered he’d forgotten his Eftpos card, so headed home. But to get there, he took a longer route, intentionally diverting along Wellington Rd, a 50kmh residential area, part of which he knew had been recently resealed. As soon as he hit the new chipseal, Lyon began deliberately fish-tailing the car while accelerating hard in first gear up to 5000rpm.

A witness described “rooster-tails” of gravel flying from Lyon’s Mazda, and being convinced gouges would be left in the seal where the car had driven. Lyon continued accelerating for 100m up a slight incline and was still accelerating even as he completely lost control, crossed the road and hit Boyd. His car plunged down a bank by Paekākāriki School, beside a sign saying “Thank you for Driving Carefully”, and struck a large paperbark tree. A branch crushed the passenger’s-side roof almost to door-panel height, with Lyon’s stepdaughter, still in pink pyjamas, somehow escaping with just a gash to her forehead. Lyon was unhurt.

Crash examiners say the car was going at least 65kmh when it hit the tree, though initial estimates put it as high as 91kmh. At the scene, Lyon admitted to police, “I was showing off to my daughter and lost control.”

On 15 June this year, Lyon arrived early for his sentencing, and waited outside the courtroom with his partner, his ankles crossed, his hands clasped in his lap, his mind flicking back to that sunny Sunday on Wellington Rd a year before. A small DC Shoes backpack rested beside him, perhaps indicating he knew jail was likely. And later that morning, when Justice Susan Thomas sentenced him to 28 months in prison for reckless driving causing death and told him to “stand down”, and he blew a kiss to his partner and exited through a side door, that’s when the sobs started.

While Caroline Boyd’s family clasped each other, still devastated by her death and exhausted by the process, on the other side of the courtroom, Lyon’s partner buried herself into the shoulder of a supporter, wondering what life held now for her and their two children.

And somewhere in the gap between them, that aisle of ghastly grey and green courtroom carpet, lay all the imperfections and impossibilities and failures of imagination in our justice system – but also some of the answers.

Nathan Lyon at his sentencing in the Wellington High Court.
So what was the right thing to do with Nathan Lyon?

Essentially, the judge had two options: she could either jail him or, if she decided his sentence should be two years or less, she could allow him to apply for home detention.

At the outset, Justice Thomas stressed how driving offences causing deaths were the most difficult cases to sentence, because they weren’t intentional violence but the result of “stupid recklessness”. Plainly struggling with what punishment to impose, she took an extra break to consider her decision.

The family had also thought deeply about what was an appropriate sentence for Lyon. A year before, most admit they were overwhelmed by rage and urges of retribution. Hamish Cooke says, the way he looked at it, his mother had been robbed of 30 years of her life, so Lyon should lose his liberty for an equal period – an eye for an eye. But time had gone some way to taking the edge off their anger. So had a dramatic restorative justice meeting with Lyon.

Three weeks before his sentencing, Lyon and his partner came face to face with Caroline Boyd’s husband, children, and younger sisters Judi and Sarah. In a two-hour meeting, Lyon finally accepted responsibility.

“How do I say sorry to a family I have destroyed?” he told them. “You have every right to hate me, to think the worst of me. I can’t imagine what it’s like. I don’t expect anyone to forgive me… Sorry sounds like nothing – but I’m sorry. There’s no excuse or reason for what I’ve done. My total disregard for the law is disgusting and I’m ashamed of myself.”

The family told Lyon about Caroline, and how much she meant to all of them. “We are a strong family,” Tony Cooke told him. “Our lives have not been ruined – but irrevocably changed.” Tony then read part of his wife’s autopsy report, detailing her injuries: “I want you to know what happens when a car hits a pedestrian.” 

The family in 2016 (from left): Tony Cooke, Caroline Boyd, and their children Becky, Hamish and Tim. Right: Caroline Boyd missed the graduation of her children Hamish and Becky from Otago University in December 2017.

The family also learnt something of Lyon. How he’d come from a broken home, been in welfare care at 11, started work at 14; how he’d had a panel-beating business, but it had failed; how he cared for his 14-year-old son as well as his stepdaughter. And he insisted he’d changed. “I will never drive again, I can promise you 100%.”

Tim Cooke raised the possibility of working with Lyon in the future, using his story to prevent similar tragedies. In the end, there was a fraction more understanding, an overlaying of humanity, a cautious softening of the caricatures that had formed.

At Lyon’s sentencing, it seemed clear the judge was leaning on the success of this meeting and hesitating to jail Lyon, despite how appalling and devastating his acts had been. Ultimately, her sentencing formula relied on a mix of maths, reference to other cases and her own “discretion”. It worked like this:

Reckless driving causing death carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ jail. Justice Thomas decided a starting point of four years was appropriate for Lyon, and added three months because he was a repeat offender. She reduced that by seven months for the effect imprisonment would have on Lyon’s family, as he was the children’s primary caregiver. Then she gave him a 20% reduction for remorse, given his role in the restorative justice meeting. In addition, she gave him a further 20% reduction for his guilty plea. That came to a final sentence of 28 months – not quite low enough to make Lyon eligible for home detention, so he was led away to jail.

But was sending Lyon to prison – a concrete box where he’ll mix with hardened criminals, get no help to alter his driving behaviour, contribute nothing to the community he’s harmed, and cost the taxpayer around $100,000 – the best thing society could come up with as a punishment?

Caroline Boyd’s family all agreed a short time in jail was important. Anything less would have sent a terrible signal about the consequences of killing an innocent person, depriving Caroline of graduations, weddings and grandchildren, and shattering her family forever.

“You can have all your liberal ideas about overcrowded jails,” says Caroline’s sister, Sarah Boyd, “but looking at the severity of what happened here, I believed he needed a jail sentence. I know it’s not particularly helpful and prison’s not going to do Nathan any good and there’s no rehabilitation there, but I felt, for the community also, he needed to be out of the picture for a while. Maybe if there was more of a suite of options, we’d have been happy with a community sentence. It did feel blunt, that’s for sure.”

The accident site now, where a garden has been planted and seats installed.

Journalist Rebecca Macfie had been best friends with Caroline Boyd for nearly 40 years, after they met as teenagers on their first day at university. And as the judge gave Lyon reduction after reduction on his sentence, Macfie found herself becoming incensed he could walk free with scant atonement if granted home detention.

“But when it was all done and the sentence had been announced and I went home – for the next few days I just felt sick and really quite distressed, and I couldn’t get Nathan in that cell out of my mind. I just had this image of him, this pathetic individual, in jail, and his partner at home with these kids, bereft, and the uselessness of it all, really.”

The problem was, Macfie says, that the judge had such a limited range of tools to apply to a complex case where each family had competing needs; tools that were largely dull and uncreative – the brutality of jail or the inadequacy of home detention. “So we end up with him going to jail for 28 months – he’ll be out in nine or 10 [with early parole] – and nothing will have changed except he will have become probably more at risk of any mental health issues he might have had, his family will have suffered – plus we’ve paid 100 grand for it.

“And in the middle of it, Caroline’s gone, this dynamic woman in her prime, my best mate, and the whole thing is just such an utterly unsatisfactory accounting for her death.”

Macfie was struck by the lack of any sentence option that involved changing Lyon’s driving behaviour, or giving back to the community he’d damaged. Instead, the system relied on imprisonment, “because it’s the only thing we know. But what might we do with that 100 grand [spent keeping him in prison]? We either keep on spending the money, or we take it and – I’m grasping at what these measures might be, but surely to god, that 100 grand sounds to me like an enormous resource to do something with, if we were to flip the way we’re thinking about it. Because, if we had that 100 grand and it went into Nathan as a home detention candidate, with intensive treatment and serving his community, everything would have been different for me. But we don’t have that. We don’t have anything that looks vaguely like that.”

Flowers at the accident scene.
Maybe Justice Minister Andrew Little’s justice summit in late August, born from concern about over-populated prisons, will throw up some answers. Or maybe, after a slew of speeches, we’ll again throw up our hands and claim the problem is insoluble.

In the meantime, Caroline Boyd’s family have ideas and plans of their own.

When Tim Cooke met Lyon at the restorative justice meeting, and Lyon asked “How can I help?” and they talked about something they could do to change driver behaviour, the pair exchanged contact details. The night before Lyon was sent to jail, Tim rang Lyon – the man who’d killed his mother – and they spoke for half an hour, about what had happened, what would happen the next day, and what might happen in the future.

They talked again of using Lyon’s experience in a series of videos, having him speak to community groups or schools, helping him get through to others who drive so dangerously they risk wreaking death and grief.

For Tim, making something positive from his mother’s senseless killing meant not viewing Lyon’s sentencing as the final proclamation, after which everyone separates, nursing bitterness and loss. And if the state wasn’t going to provide Lyon any rehabilitation, then he felt the family had to offer help.

“I’ve committed myself to working with him and visiting him in prison. And that’s to help him with the accountability process as well. If we had no connection or engagement with him, it’s pretty likely he’d go back to his old ways. How does that serve Mum and serve other people if we just do nothing? It’s clearly an issue that’s not just about him, it’s a nationwide issue – the road toll is terrible. So it’s an opportunity, from the adversity, to actually make something meaningful happen. If other drivers listen to what he has to say, and that message resonates, then you prevent unnecessary deaths from happening.”

Everyone in the family supports Tim’s plan, several offering to join him visiting Lyon in jail, including Hamish, who initially had such harsh views about Lyon’s punishment. “I’ve flipped big time. We have to proactively be part of helping Nathan. It’s an emotional investment for the family, but we have to do that to get change.”

Tony Cooke says he consciously decided to eschew blame and bitterness and anger after his wife’s death. “I’d seen people on TV saying, ‘My life has been ruined because so-and-so ran my husband over.’ And 20 years afterwards, they’re still eaten up inside, victims, crying out ‘Look at me, poor me.’ And I don’t want to be like that. You’ve got to accept what you’ve got and do something positive with it.”

To that end, last November the family organised a run and walk in Caroline’s memory, along her favourite jogging routes, which raised $10,000 for charity. They’ve also planted a garden at the crash site, with seats for passersby.

Macfie says the empathy and compassion that emerged from the family’s restorative justice meeting with Lyon is perhaps an example to a failing prison system built on “a shitload of money, large buildings and an authoritarian culture. It’s crazy and remarkable that the meeting, and the incredible energy and emotional capacity of that family, is probably going to be one of the best things that will have happened in Nathan’s life. Tim really is throwing him a lifeline. He’s the luckiest bastard around.”

If only. If only Caroline Boyd had been a few seconds faster, or slower, on her run. If only she’d stopped for a moment to gaze across at Kapiti Island, or tighten a shoelace. If only she’d returned along the beach instead of the road. If only any of these things had happened, then tragedy might have been a miraculous near-miss, and Caroline Boyd wouldn’t have died.

But the sole “if only” that really matters is: if only Nathan Lyon hadn’t ignored his disqualification, hadn’t sneered at his punishment and everyone else’s safety, and driven so wantonly, so wildly.

Tony Cooke addressing competitors at the start of the Caroline Boyd Memorial Run-Walk November 2017

So how was someone with such a history of driving infringements and multiple disqualifications still able to get behind the wheel of a car?

At Lyon’s sentencing, Caroline’s daughter, Becky, read the family’s powerful victim impact statement. “What does disqualified from driving mean if granting that disqualification causes no effective sanction, or if the community chooses to look the other way?”

She pointed to the need to change our driving culture of speeding and risk-taking, through laws, enforcement and education. “Why is driving a motor vehicle seen as an entitlement rather than a privilege to be earned and maintained through respectful, safe-driving practices? There must be another path for drivers locked into this arrogant mindset and profound disregard for the rights of others. There must be some kind of intervention which can change the thinking of those drivers, before real-life consequences.”

And she laid out the real-life consequences: in the past 10 years, 174 people were killed in crashes involving disqualified drivers. In 2017 alone, 26 died – Caroline being one of them. The scale of the problem is demonstrated by the fact an average of 8700 people a year have been prosecuted for driving while disqualified over the past decade.

Tony Cooke says police and the courts seemed to have no tools to change Lyon’s behaviour as he racked up 35 driving offences. “There must be something in between those first few cases and becoming a recidivist who isn’t going to change their behaviour unless something happens – like killing someone. Nathan thought he was a better driver than everyone else, thought he could go faster than anyone else. Driving fast gave him a thrill and it was like an addiction.”

Tony says what’s needed is some kind of intensive therapy or driver programme simulating crashes and showing people like Lyon exactly what happens when you hit somebody. “‘This is the mess you get. Watch it. These are the kind of injuries. This is what death looks like.’ Get them to meet people who’ve been disabled, or families like us – the shock of reality. Make them aware how a car can be a lethal weapon. Because that’s what wasn’t getting through to Nathan: the consequences of his actions.”

While there are some driver programmes, they aren’t widely available. Tony believes they need to be directed at drivers after their first few convictions. The fact disqualified drivers kill so many innocent people is a clear example of where our justice system is failing, he says. “There’s prevention, rehabilitation and punishment – locking people away. We’re putting all our resources into punishment and locking people away. Will a politician stand up and champion this and say, ‘This isn’t good enough, it has to change’? Because that’s what it will take.”

National manager of road policing Superintendent Steve Greally accepts disqualification doesn’t actually stop people driving. “Just like any set of rules, it relies on people playing the game.”

But in recent years police have begun concentrating on preventing dangerous driving “rather than just ticket, ticket, ticket”, Greally says. “We sure as hell don’t want your money. We want your behaviour changed, so people can get from A to B in a safe manner.”

This means dealing with what is behind an offender’s illegal driving, and often involves other agencies. The in-your-face education Tony Cooke suggests can work, Greally says, but often a range of solutions is required. “And we’re only limited by how we can think.”

Mike Joy was in the car behind Nathan Lyon as he sped up this stretch of Wellington Rd in Paekākāriki. He remembers seeing “rooster tails” of gravel flying from Lyon’s car as it accelerated and fish-tailed. When Joy reached the corner at the top left of this photo, he found Lyon’s car down a bank across the road, wedged under a tree, after having hit Caroline Boyd.
When Justice Thomas sentenced Lyon to jail she also disqualified him from driving for four years. For most of Caroline Boyd’s family and friends, this seemed utterly insufficient, to the point of having little meaning.

“I don’t want to ever see him drive again,” says Becky Cooke. “I don’t think he has any right to. He should have the most important thing to him, taken away from him – like the most important thing to us was taken away from us.”

“Caroline’s life was terminated just like that,” adds Tony. “So for him to have a life without driving seems reasonable. That’s his atonement for what he’s done.”

Lyon assured the family he’d never drive again, and it’s a promise the family respects Lyon for, and puts great store in. “But the moment he breaks that promise,” says Tony, “then he’s just an empty shell of a human being again.”

Given Lyon repeatedly ignored his past disqualifications, Judi Boyd says she’s spent considerable time thinking how this one could be enforced. Technology hasn’t presently got an answer, and police will never be able to monitor everyone. “So it all comes down to the community around you respecting it. What if all his friends and family had said, ‘You’re disqualified, you’re a rubbish driver, you’re not going in my car, you’re not having the car keys...’”

Sarah Boyd says, just as society’s attitudes to drink driving have changed to the point where it’s unacceptable, people needed to stop turning a blind eye to those driving while disqualified, “because everyone has families of their own who don’t want dangerous, disqualified drivers on their roads”.

For Rebecca Macfie, disqualifying Lyon for four years was hopelessly inadequate. “That was the bit that just made me want to shout, ‘No! You have forfeited the right to use the lethal weapon.’

“If you’re going to wave a shotgun around town and kill somebody by accident because you like the power that gun gives you, I think the community generally wouldn’t want to allow that person to have a gun again. But we’re saying, ‘Okay Nathan, we’re going to not let you drive for four years and then you can drive again.’ We should be saying, ‘You are not allowed the gun any more, Nathan, until you show me you’re capable of using the gun safely.’”

The parallel with gun ownership was highlighted in July, when Southland man Brendon Diack was refused a firearms licence by the court. In 1996, Diack killed 16-year-old Mark Whyte in a hunting accident and was sentenced to two months’ jail. Since then, Diack has applied several times for the return of his firearms licence but been rejected on the grounds he isn’t a fit and proper person.

Steve Greally insists there’s a difference between gun and driver licences. “The main one is that a vehicle is deemed something that’s necessary to go about your life – a firearm is not.”

But Macfie angrily rejects this, saying it exemplifies our “extreme car-centricity. A car is not a necessity for life.” She points out Lyon lived near a train line, in a village where he could walk or bike everywhere, and where there were people who could give him a lift. And given Lyon ignored past disqualifications, and the court ordered or offered no rehabilitation for his driving problems, Macfie says his latest disqualification is hollow. “The whole thing is just an empty pipeline. A pipeline from nowhere to nowhere.”

A sign which was right beside where Caroline Boyd was hit, beside Paekākāriki School.

The effects of what Nathan Lyon did that Sunday morning seep beyond Caroline Boyd’s family, as any road death inevitably does. That’s what perpetrators of such idiocy and violence never truly get – just how far the damage goes.

Mike Joy was in the car behind Lyon, saw him fish-tailing up Wellington Rd, scrambled down to Lyon’s crushed car, tried to help Caroline Boyd, knew someone nearby must be waiting for her to arrive home. Joy lives barely 100m away, and whenever he passes the crash site he can see the tree’s bare branch, the bark still stripped where Lyon’s car struck it.

“It makes you feel sick every time. It’s changed the really positive feeling about going home. I’ll consciously avoid it, I’ll drive and walk the other way if I can.”

He says Paekākāriki residents now get angry with people speeding, much more aware of what can happen.

But as Sarah Boyd walks to work in Wellington, she sees reckless driving every day, dangerous exhibitions of our aggressive driving culture, she says. “I yell at cars, I take down numbers. I just can’t stand hearing fast cars.”

Her sister, Judi, is the same; the speed cars go horrifies her now. Unlike some, Judi admits still being angry about how such a generous and wholly good person was killed. “I should be angry. Because it was just wrong that it happened. And I really miss my sister.”

But Judi completely backs the family’s efforts to support Lyon and get change, “because if we can at least see one person become a better driver, that’s great”.

Tony Cooke says there has been a failure of imagination in dealing with people like Lyon and the harm they cause. “And who’s motivated to solve it? Perhaps people like us are motivated to solve it, because we want to channel our energy into change, to save this happening again. And it’s also channelling Caroline. She’d want something positive, she’d want some change to come out of it, to prevent other people going through the pain we’ve gone through.”

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.