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Harry Dunn killing: Britain considers trying U.S. diplomat’s wife in absentia

On Aug. 27, 2019, British teen Harry Dunn was killed in a crash involving a U.S. diplomat's wife. His parents spoke to The Post a year after his death. (Video: William Booth, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

LONDON — It was a year ago Thursday that Harry Dunn was struck by a luxury SUV that police say was driven on the wrong side of a two-lane highway by the American wife of a U.S. diplomat in central England.

Dunn, 19, died of his injuries. The U.S. government asserted that the driver, Anne Sacoolas, was protected by diplomatic immunity. She left the country, with full knowledge of British and U.S. authorities.

American diplomat’s wife is being charged with causing the death of British teen Harry Dunn

Now, in an exchange of letters revealed this week, top British authorities suggest that prosecutors are considering trying Sacoolas in absentia.

Ordinarily, Dunn’s death would have been a tragic but obscure incident. Instead, it has become a year-long cross-Atlantic diplomatic wrangle between two otherwise close allies. President Trump sought to broker a deal — or find closure — with Dunn’s parents at a remarkable White House meeting with Sacoolas.

Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn spoke on Aug. 17, 2020, about their Oct. 15, 2019 White House meeting next door to the woman involved in their son's fatal crash. (Video: William Booth/The Washington Post)

The immunity that protected Sacoolas, for spouses at a Royal Air Force base in Croughton that is used by U.S. intelligence agencies, was, in fact, a secret loophole. As a result of the family’s lobbying, the loophole was closed in July, by agreement between London and Washington. If a similar accident were to happen today, a spouse of a diplomat at the base would not be immune from prosecution.

But for parents Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn, the goal remains a trial for Sacoolas. Their cause has been trumpeted by the British media, with encouraging words from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.

A year after Dunn’s death, his parents’ emotions remain raw. In an interview with The Washington Post, Charles spoke of Sacoolas.

“She’s a mum of three,” she said. “I’ve never been able to understand the fact that she is not setting a good example to those children whatsoever. It doesn't matter what country or who it was that has taken the life of someone's loved one, justice still needs to be done.”

Sacoolas’s attorney did not comment Wednesday.

U.S. and Britain change diplomatic immunity rules in light of Harry Dunn’s death

Dunn’s parents also remained disturbed — and offended, they say — by what Tim Dunn called the “surreal” meeting with Trump in the Oval Office in October 2019, two months after their son’s death.

Before the meeting, Trump called the death a “terrible accident,” but said driving on the wrong side of the road “happens.” During the meeting, the family says, the president was charming at first, but then surprised them by pressing them to meet with Sacoolas, who he said was in an adjoining room.

“It was shocking to us that we would be thrown into that situation,” Charles said. “Totally wrong. Not just for us … but for her as well.”

The family declined the meeting.

Sacoolas was charged in Britain in December with causing death by dangerous driving. A British request for extradition was rejected by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

If found guilty in a British court, Sacoolas could be sentenced to 14 years in prison. But the guidelines suggest two to five years would be more likely. A British attorney who has defended tourists on similar charges told The Post that a defendant like Sacoolas might not serve any time at all.

In correspondence released Wednesday, Justice Minister Robert Buckland told the family’s representative in parliament that the attorney general for England and Wales was considering trying Sacoolas in absentia.

“The suggestions you put forward for resolving the impasse by holding a trial virtually or in absentia are as you know being considered by the attorney general,” Buckland wrote to Member of Parliament Andrea Leadsom, “and she will respond as decisions about criminal proceedings in individual cases are a matter for her and the director of public prosecutions. My officials stand ready, however, to assist in any way they can.”

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Mark Stephens, a lawyer for the Dunn family, said a decision on whether “a trial virtually or in absentia” will proceed probably will be made before November.

A virtual trial, Stephens said, would be unusual — he estimated there has been one such trial in England and Wales every two years or so. “It is quite the exception rather than the rule,” he said. “But, of course, this is an exceptional case.”

Charles said the family has had no contact with Sacoolas. “It would be nice to hear directly from her because we have no understanding of what her life is like,” she said. “I can't imagine that she truly is being able to move on and forget what she's done.”

Charles noted that Sacoolas’s birthday falls the day after Harry’s death. “Is she going to celebrate her birthday when we’re sat without our boy?” she asked.

“We just want the lady responsible to go through the U.K. justice system. We get on with our lives and try to rebuild because we all we’ve done is exist and manage and cope for the last twelve months.”

British police will head to U.S. to interview woman involved in crash that killed Harry Dunn

A State Department spokeswoman offered “sincere condolences and sympathy to the Dunn family for the loss of their son.”

“This was a tragic accident,” the spokeswoman said in a statement Wednesday. “At the time the accident occurred, and for the duration of her stay in the UK, the U.S. citizen driver in this case had immunity from criminal jurisdiction. From the outset of this tragedy, we have worked closely with our UK counterparts to find a mutually acceptable path forward. We continue to engage with them to find a reasonable resolution.”

The spokeswoman said Pompeo’s decision to reject extradition “was final.”

Dunn’s parents say they have been treated shabbily.

In October, seven weeks after their son died, they were in New York City giving interviews when family spokesman Radd Seiger got a call saying “a senior official at the White House” wanted to meet. They caught a train to Washington.

“He was our boy. I gave birth to that boy,” said Charles, struggling to hold back tears. “I was robbed of that child. And no one was being held accountable for that.

“You are just desperate to talk to and get through to anybody you possibly can to put your human side across.”

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Initially, Charles said, “things seemed quite lighthearted from President Trump's point of view.”

Trump told Harry’s father that he’d seen him on television. But then, Charles said, it became “very, very clear from the off that there was an underlying current there and an underlying plan.”

Trump asked Charles and Dunn whether they would like to meet Sacoolas.

Charles listed the reasons they declined: “Wrong setting, no mediators for her and us, no therapists for her or us, no mutual ground, and without having gone through the U.K. justice system.”

She said Trump “told us she was a very nice lady” and said, “Let’s get some healing.”

“Unfortunately,” Charles said, “nothing was going to heal up our hearts and minds back then, and there’s no healing of them now.”

Tim Dunn said there was a photographer in the meeting and media waiting on the South Lawn. “It would have been so wrong for us to do it,” he said. “We were a family out of our depth.”

Trump says his meeting with Harry Dunn’s parents was ‘beautiful.’ Their spokesman calls it ‘an ambush.’

To mark the anniversary of Dunn’s death, hundreds of motorcyclists planned an evening ride past the Royal Air Force base followed by a candlelit vigil. Many were expected to wear green, as they have at other rallies and rides. Green was the color of Harry’s Kawasaki motorcycle.

“I'll be wearing my justice for Harry t shirt the same as I did on the original ride,” one participant wrote on the event’s Facebook page. Another said: “this is going to be HUGE, until Ann sacoolas comes back to face justice....... we WILL carry on xxx”

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