Law & the Courts

The Diplomat’s Wife Should Stand Trial

(Carlos Jasso/Reuters)
The U.S. must allow a citizen suspected of killing a British teenager to face justice.

In August, an American woman crashed into and killed a British teenager on his motorbike. The driver was on the wrong side of the road, which she admitted to police the next day while assuring them that she would not leave the country. After the boy’s funeral, she fled to the United States.

It turns out that the driver was the wife of a U.S. diplomat working at a Royal Air Force base in Northamptonshire. Though her husband’s exact role has not been confirmed, media reports and the base’s use as a U.S. listening station suggest that he might work in intelligence.

Since 19-year-old Harry Dunn’s death, Northamptonshire police have attempted to conduct an investigation into the incident with the American suspect’s assistance. These efforts have been fruitless, as the U.S. government has afforded her diplomatic immunity and shielded her from possible prosecution.

Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, telephoned the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., Woody Johnson, to express disappointment and “urge the Embassy to reconsider.” Raab has spoken to his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to reiterate his disappointment, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the suspect should lose immunity. But the U.S. embassy has stayed firm and refused to grant a waiver of immunity.

This story is not going away, nor is the pain felt by Harry’s family. It appears likely that this tension will continue for some time, as the U.S. embassy has confirmed that the family left the U.K. on the advice of senior State Department officials, adding that it is uncommon for immunity to be waived in these circumstances. It seems that the British Foreign Office agreed, as it did not publicly object to the suspect’s return to the U.S. at the time. But the British people do not agree: They are furious, and rightly so.  As America’s closest ally and the first nation to provide assistance when it is desired, Britain and its people deserve better than this.

The wives of diplomats do not need to be protected from British justice. This is a fair and evenhanded country ruled by equitable laws and without cruel or unusual punishment. If it were a tyrannical, authoritarian regime with an inhumane criminal-justice system, then the U.S. government’s actions would have some merit and justification. Last year, for example, an American diplomat killed a 22-year-old Pakistani after running a red light and was granted immunity and returned to the U.S. The recovery was fair. Put politely, Pakistan has a dubious justice record, and access to a free trial is not guaranteed.

But, regardless of what some ethno-nationalists would have you believe, Britain is not Pakistan. Indeed, our sentencing guidelines for manslaughter via dangerous driving are lighter than those found in many U.S. states. And without the defense of an unfair trial to support its decision, the U.S. government’s move to whisk her away and save her from justice says to many that it thinks its people can get away with killing British citizens.

There are some 23,000 people living in Britain with diplomatic immunity. It allows them to ignore the law-abiding principles and the taxes expected of other residents. For the most part, this is tolerated, as the immunity rarely extends beyond parking fines or congestion charges. It is not accepted when used to cover a killing carried out by a diplomat’s family member.

If the U.S. government has a strong reason for protecting the suspect in this way, it should announce it soon, as public discontent is only going to grow. A kind, good young man was killed, leaving his mother and family “in complete ruin.” Thanks to the elite nature of his suspected killer’s role, she has gotten away with it. This is intolerable.

Americans who respect the rule of law and Britain’s longstanding special friendship with the United States should campaign for justice to be served.

Charlie PetersCharlie Peters is a writer and broadcaster from Surrey, England.

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