How can you only get two years for killing a man?

How can you only get two years for killing a man? NHS worker Peter McCombie, 72, was killed in a hit and run by an illegal immigrant who fled the scene – but a law means his assailant was given a paltry jail sentence

  • NHS worker Peter McCombie was fatally injured in a hit-and-run cycling crash
  • CCTV was released after illegal Albanian immigrant Ermir Loka, 23, was jailed 
  • Loka was cleared of of manslaughter, but jailed for two years after being found guilty of causing bodily harm by wanton or furious driving

Catastrophic brain injuries: Pedestrian Peter McCombie

NHS worker Peter McCombie loved his job so much he refused to think about retiring, even though — at 72 — he had more than earned it.

For 17 years he’d worked at the Royal London Hospital, in administration, and never missed a day. Not even the coronavirus pandemic could stop him.

‘We were so frightened of him catching Covid, we used to plead with him ‘Don’t go in Pete, stay at home’,’ his sister Christine, 70, says.

‘But he loved the NHS and work was his life. If he’d died from coronavirus I think we could have come to terms with it, but not this.

‘My brother was left to die in the road, bleeding. You never get over something like that. There’s no end to it.

‘We still can’t believe it and will always be saying ‘it should never have been that way’.’

This week, the sickening CCTV footage —capturing the moment Peter was fatally injured in the hit-and-run cycling crash in July last year — was released after illegal Albanian immigrant Ermir Loka, 23, was jailed.

Heartbreaking for his family, it shows Peter standing at the central island of a pedestrian crossing in Bow Road, Tower Hamlets, patiently waiting for the traffic lights to turn red at 5pm. 

He was walking home after his shift for what would be the last time.

Ermir Loka fleeing on foot having disposed of his bike after fatally colliding with Peter McCombie

Tall, slim and remarkably fit for his age, Peter’s one concession to coronavirus was to avoid public transport, and he walked 40 minutes each way, every work day, from his East London flat to Whitechapel. 

Always safety-conscious, his family say he wasn’t the type to take risks, as the CCTV shows.

When the green man on the crossing lights up, he strides across, thinking he is safe — only for a cyclist to fly past, narrowly missing him. As Peter freezes in his tracks, a second cyclist, Loka, travelling through a red light, ploughs into him.

When Peter lay in the busy road fatally brain injured, unconscious but with his eyes open, Loka — witnesses later told a court — angrily pointed to his damaged bike, and said, ‘Look at what you’ve done!’

The cyclist then grabbed his bike and, thinking the seriously injured elderly man ‘looked OK’, pedalled off, leaving appalled witnesses to phone for an ambulance.

Police mugshot: Ermir Loka

Peter’s family have described that act as ‘cowardice, beyond contempt’.

CCTV captured Loka later abandoning his bike and running off. The Albanian, said in court to be working illegally as a builder and in a restaurant at the time, went on to admit he had fled, fearing deportation.

‘When I first saw that awful CCTV footage at the start of his trial, I felt disgusted,’ says Peter’s younger brother Michael, 71, a cabinet maker, whose family has agreed to talk exclusively to the Mail.

‘Loka didn’t even stop to help Peter. He cared more about his bike than my brother’s life. He shook Peter’s hand off the cycle and, so witnesses said, told him off as Peter was lying there in the road.

‘Then he just rode off. That’s the most upsetting part of all this.’

Loka was cleared of the more serious charge of manslaughter, but jailed for two years after being found guilty at Snaresbrook Crown Court of causing bodily harm by wanton or furious driving. He claimed he hadn’t realised the lights were on red.

Loka told the court: ‘I did not deliberately go through the red lights. I saw the person was frozen in place and tried to swerve to the right, but I just could not manage instinctively to copy what the cyclist in front of me did, I just didn’t have time to do it.’

He added that he was in ‘a state of shock’ when he left the scene, but did not think Mr McCombie was seriously hurt. He admitted: ‘I have done wrong . . . I was a coward.’

Captured on CCTV: Loka before the deadly collision

Police, however, said Loka had ‘ample time’ to stop — about eight seconds — as he approached the traffic lights when they turned from green to red. But he did not brake and collided with Peter at an estimated speed of 15mph.

Knocked to the ground, Peter suffered a fractured skull, fractured jaw bone, broken rib and bruised legs. He died from head injuries eight days later in hospital.

The maximum sentence for conviction under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 for collisions of this type is just two years, and Peter’s devastated siblings — furious at the paltry sentence Loka received — plan to campaign for a change to the law in their brother’s memory.

Dating back to a pre-motor car age of horse and carriage, the 1861 Act is still used for offences involving cycles and other non-mechanically propelled vehicles which have not been included in the Road Traffic Act.

‘Peter was knocked down in a hit-and-run crash with a cyclist, but what have we, his family, been left with at the end of the court process? Nothing,’ says Christine.

‘Two years is the maximum sentence for the offence and the judge’s hands were tied, but to us it feels like Loka received just a slap on the wrist. Is this all that Peter’s life is worth?’

With his time on remand deducted from his sentence, Loka faces imminent deportation on release.

Home Secretary Priti Patel last month signed an agreement with Albania to remove nationals with no right to stay in the UK. The threshold for deporting foreign criminals is a sentence of more than 12 months.

But that is of little comfort to Peter’s grieving family, who would rather see Loka serving a far stiffer sentence in a British prison.

Michael says: ‘I would feel the same way about Loka if he was British. The fact he’s an illegal immigrant from Albania is irrelevant to me.

‘Yes, I’m pleased he’ll be deported, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to get back in Britain on the back of a lorry. For us this isn’t about who he is or where he’s from, it’s about justice. Yes, he’ll have a conviction, but he’ll still be a free man.’

The family says officials have told them the paperwork is all in place for Loka’s expulsion from the UK.

Christine adds: ‘It’s shocking he only got two years and it’s no consolation at all that he’ll be deported.

‘I’d have preferred him to have got a much longer sentence, more like eight years. But that’s impossible under our justice system, so there has to be a change in the law.

‘It seems ridiculous that the only law that can be applied to cyclists, who can travel very fast without any proficiency training or insurance, is one that dates back to the Victorian era of horse and carts.

‘It’s very hard to prove that a cyclist deliberately ran a red light, so even if a pedestrian dies in a crash, they’re not being given the sentences they deserve with the law as it stands, as we have discovered to our cost.

‘It is very upsetting and stressful to go through the court process knowing there will be no real punishment even if someone is found guilty.

‘If anything, things are going to get even worse with more and more cyclists on the roads, electric bikes and scooters. I’d like to speak to people who’ve been through what we have to see what can be done to change the law.’

Loka was convicted after a retrial. The first jury had failed to reach verdicts in March, so Peter’s family had the added distress of reliving their brother’s final moments twice.

Peter, though unmarried and childless, was a much-loved member of a large extended family.

The eldest of five children born to a London cabinet maker, his family say he was a quiet, unassuming, ‘gentle giant’ who always put others first and was adored by his many nephews and nieces.

He cared devotedly for his elderly mother Violet for years until she passed away.

His younger siblings Michael, 71, Christine, 70, David, 65, and Teresa, 62, still haven’t come to terms with his loss, and nor have their children and grandchildren.

Before the pandemic, Peter used to meet Christine every Saturday night to play Scrabble, and stayed with her each Christmas. He loved big family get-togethers and weddings, but living alone, work was his passion.

‘Peter loved his job and was highly regarded by his colleagues,’ says Christine. ‘He never wanted to retire. He didn’t even like taking time off work for holidays.’

Michael’s wife of 53 years, Sandra, 71, said: ‘I’ve known Peter since I was 16 and he was just a lovely man.

‘He was tall and very thin and his colleagues were always trying to fatten him up, but he was incredibly fit for his age. He’d recently been for a medical and was in such good shape he was told he’d live to be 100.’

Because of the pandemic, and lockdown, the family hadn’t been able to see Peter until the day police called about the accident.

‘Peter died exactly one week before his 73rd birthday,’ says Michael, who would like to see cycles registered in the same way cars are and have number plates.

‘We knew he was badly injured and were warned he probably wouldn’t make it, but we were distraught to arrive at the hospital to be asked permission for his life support to be turned off. We weren’t expecting that at all.

‘He’d hit the ground very hard and looked in bad shape. There was nothing that could be done to save him. He was brain dead. We knew he wouldn’t have wanted to live if he was going to be left with no quality of life, so we said yes.’

Michael and sister Teresa held Peter’s hands as he passed away.

‘It took Peter 53 minutes to die. It was the most awful experience of our lives. Teresa broke down, she was devastated. She still can’t talk about it today.’

Three weeks after the crash, Loka handed himself in to police after CCTV pictures of him were released in a witness appeal. Michael’s three children and seven grandchildren posted Loka’s picture on social media in the hope that someone would recognise him.

Christine says: I’m not sure Loka would ever have given himself up without those CCTV images. Before then, he tried to change his appearance by shaving and cutting his hair. In court, he said he was sorry, but he kept his head down the whole time.

‘We can understand why the jury cleared him of manslaughter, but as for the two-year sentence he did receive, we just don’t get it. What’s the point? It’s important that he is convicted, but we wanted more than what seems like a slap on the wrist. Even if the jury decided it wasn’t manslaughter, the sentence should have been longer.’

Peter’s family, despite their grief and anger at his death, hope that by speaking out, something positive will emerge from their personal tragedy.

It is early days, but their biggest wish is to see the Government address a growing problem of reckless cyclists and change the law to reflect the modern era.

They’d like it to be called Peter’s Law, in tribute to the quiet 72-year-old who’d devoted his life to the health service.

‘When we left Snaresbrook Court after Loka’s conviction, as we went up the road we saw a young guy on an electric scooter go through a red light, then further up a lady cyclist go through a red, followed by a couple more,’ says Christine.

‘How many pedestrians have to be injured for something to be done? Car drivers have to pay road tax, pass a test and have insurance, but cyclists don’t have to do anything.

‘The only thing that will work as a deterrent is harsher sentences.’

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