Length of manslaughter sentence stuns family of Kilmacow musician
At Waterford’s Circuit Criminal Court on Friday last, Judge Eugene O’Kelly handed down a five-year prison sentence to Craig McGrath (26) of Rathfadden Park for the manslaughter of Kilmacow musician Damien O’Brien (28). The sentence was greeted with audible shock by members of Mr O’Brien’s family, some of whom walked out of the chamber upon hearing the verdict. One person described the sentence as “a disgrace”, while another intimated: “there’s no justice in this country”.
This prompted Judge O’Kelly to call for a restoration of calm in the chamber (without which the room would have been cleared) before completing his sentencing comments. “On the scale of gravity,” the Judge ranked McGrath’s attack on the deceased on July 7th of last year in the lower-to-middle level, citing McGrath’s being on bail at the time for a similar-type offence among the case’s aggravating factors. McGrath received a five-year prison sentence for the manslaughter of Mr O’Brien and a consecutive two-and-a-half-year sentence for an assault on August 8th 2017 of Kiefer Dowling (with an address at Ardmore Park), of which two years was suspended, leading to a five-and-a half-year net sentence.
Speaking outside the court afterwards, Minister of State John Halligan, a friend of the O’Brien family, stated: “I would favour at this stage some sort of legislation being introduced where you can’t just kill somebody and get away with it and not have an appropriate sentence. That’s not democracy.” Minister Halligan told reporters: “There’s an innocent man dead (following) an unprovoked assault and I think judges should be weighing up the death of an innocent man against the sentences that they make in one punch attacks…I know the family very well and I knew the chap (Damien O’Brien), he was a nice man, and an innocent man, he didn’t deserve to die. The family will suffer for the rest of their lives and I don’t think the sentences for one punch attacks (are) appropriate.”
The court was told that at approximately 2.50am on Saturday, July 7th, 2018, Damien O’Brien, who had performed with his band Chimpanbee at The Hub that night, was walking home with his girlfriend Catherine Smith. In a statement given to Gardaí following the attack, Ms Smith said the couple met a man she knew at the junction of John Street and Manor Street, who was with another individual, Craig McGrath. Following a brief conversation, the couple walked away to get a taxi home. A few minutes later, the same two men walked past them, during which time Craig McGrath directed “a derogatory comment” at Ms Smith, prompting Mr O’Brien to ask McGrath to leave her alone.
In her statement, Ms Smith said: “A couple of seconds later, this fella (McGrath) punched Damien in the face twice. I remember him falling to the ground and there was a thud as he hit his head on the ground. He (McGrath) hut him in a very aggressive way.” The other man present at the time of the incident initially told Gardaí he didn’t know who had carried out the attack before later stating it was Craig McGrath. CCTV footage of the unprovoked attack on Mr O’Brien was screened in court, showing McGrath shadow-boxing with another male as he left the scene in the wake of the assault.
The following day, July 8th, McGrath was interviewed four times and was shown the CCTV footage during the third interview, said Detective Garda Seamas Halpin, during which the footwear of the attacker was noted. “I’m not in the footage,” was McGrath’s reply, adding: “There’s plenty of them bought in Penney’s, hundreds of them.” Det Garda Halpin told the court that Craig McGrath had a total of 24 previous convictions, most of which were Road Traffic-related.McGrath’s mobile phone was subsequently assessed by Gardaí, from which it was noted that two checks of WLR’s death notices had been performed in the latter hours of Saturday morning, July 7th, followed by a further browse of the WLR site, in addition to a Google search for an assault in Waterford.
The court was told that Mr O’Brien was unconscious prior to hitting the footpath, having sustained a broken eye socket, broken nose and broken jaw during the attack. He was initially treated at University Hospital Waterford (UHW) and then transferred to CUH for neurological treatment, where two emergency procedures were performed. Damien O’Brien, surrounded by his family, died on July 13th. A post-mortem conducted by Dr Linda Mulligan at Cork University Hospital (CUH) indicated that Mr O’Brien had died due to a brain stem haemorrhage and traumatic brain injury due to “blunt force trauma to the head,” having been punched twice in quick succession, first with a right fist and then a left.
CCTV footage also screened in court captured McGrath’s August 18th, 2017 attack on Kiefer Dowling, both inside and outside Shortt’s Bar on John Street. The court was told that McGrath initially attempted to grab Mr Dowling’s phone before headbutting him, an incident captured on the CCTV footage. Both men were then ordered out of the premises, when McGrath subsequently punched Dowling, knocking him out and to the ground. Mr Dowling, who did not make a victim impact statement on Friday last, was later treated at UHW and has been left with a slight scar to the back of his head, according to Garda Paul Barnett, who observed the injury.
Craig McGrath, who initially claimed he was acting in self-defence, was later charged with assault causing harm and was on bail for that offence when he fatally assaulted Damien O’Brien. He later pleaded guilty to the assault causing harm charge, contrary to Section 3 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Persons Act. In a moving victim impact statement, Sandra Griffin, sister of Damien O’Brien, described her brother as “a happy healthy young man who was devoted to his family, friends and music, who had a kind word and a smile for everyone. He was a gentle soul who could never do enough for his devoted family members who meant so much to him. He lit up the lives of everyone around him. The vicious manner in which his life was taken from us, the sound of his gasps for his last breath from a broken body will always stay with us…Damien was 28 years old and was a pillar of strength in his family.”
She continued: “Six months prior to this on Christmas Night, my 14-year-old daughter suffered a cardiac arrest and Damien did all he could to save her, performing CPR…sadly, Cora lost her young life that night. That night, Damien never left me or my husband’s side despite his own pain over the loss of Cora. The last thing he said to me was ‘I will help you get through this year.’ They were the last words my brother spoke to me. He has a smile that could light up every room. His death has left a hole in our mother’s heart that will never be filled. He was the least violent young man you could ever imagine. That night he was playing music and that was the absolute passion in his life. There was no room in his head for hatred or aggression. On the 7th of July, we got a call from UHW to tell us that Damien had been the victim of an assault and had been transferred to CUH…he had to have surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain. He needed to go for emergency surgery to remove part of his skull…his nose, jaw and eye sockets had been broken. At the same time, we got a phone call from our liaison officer to tell us that the defendant had been released on bail. How was it that he was going to sleep in his own bed while our baby brother lay battered with tubes and wires keeping him alive?..We were told that he would have severe disabilities if he woke up. We could not put into words the pain we were feeling and we prayed with all our hearts for a miracle. The doctors gave us the devastating news that the surgery had been unsuccessful and that there was no more that they could do. Our Damien was slipping away. It was time to say goodbye.”
In tears, Sandra Griffin told the court: “Friday, July 13th was the day our lives changed forever. At 2pm, doctors removed his breathing tube and our world fell to pieces. We listened to him gasp for breath, he was slipping away in front of our eyes. Many people wake up from a nightmare but for us this is a nightmare there is no end to. We lost the most wonderful brother and friend. Our lives are destroyed, our family has been torn apart and our hearts are broken beyond repair. We would ask the court to issue a sentence that would keep the defendant from committing such a violent crime to another son. Whatever sentence is decided will pale with the sentence we have been given, that my mother will never see her son again, and we will never see our brother again.” A family member embraced Sandra Griffin upon returning her seat, quietly stating: “You did him proud.”
Prior to sentencing, Defence Counsel Mary Rose Geraghty SC told the court that Craig McGrath fully accepted a custodial term. “He has caused the death of this lovely and charming young man,” she said. “He does realise what he has done.” The court was also told that McGrath had written a letter of apology to the O’Brien family. Describing the events detailed before him as “a difficulty of Craig McGrath’s own making”, Judge O’Kelly extended the court’s sincerest condolences to the family of Damien O’Brien.