Tuesday 25 October 2016

GAA player jailed for assaulting opponent during club match walks free

Ruaidhrí Giblin

Published 08/12/2015 | 17:09

Michael Prendergast leaving court today
Pic: Courtpix
Michael Prendergast leaving court today Pic: Courtpix

A GAA player jailed for assaulting an opponent during a match between two Mayo football clubs, has walked free from prison following a successful appeal.

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Michael Prendergast (35), of Leicnin Village, Castlebar, Co Mayo, pleaded guilty to assault causing harm to Jonathan Clarke during a football match between Bohola Moy Davitt's and Davitt's GAA Club on the Davitt GAA pitch, Ballindine, Co Mayo on September 14 2013.

He was sentenced to two years imprisonment with the final 12 months suspended by Judge Rory McCabe on October 16, 2015.

Prendergast successfully appealed his sentence today on grounds that the sentencing judge operated on the injured party's version of events rather than the referee's match report.

Giving judgment, Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan said the three-judge court was “immediately confronted with (this) difficulty”.

In his victim impact report, Mr Clarke stated that his team, Davitt's GAA Club “were losing the game” and were “playing for pride” at that point in the match.

Mr Clarke said his team were attacking and Bohola Moy Davitt's, Prendergast's team, were defending when he was fouled while going to retrieve the ball.

He said Prendergast came towards him and without warning punched him in the left eye. It was so severe, Mr Clarke said he landed on the ground.

Mr Clarke said Prendergast had “no reason to have any bother ” with him. “He had not been marking me” and “I can't understand why he decided to attack me”.

It was “entirely unprovoked,” he said.

Mr Justice Sheehan said the referee's match report gave a “decidedly different account of the context of the assault”.

He said the referee recalled the incident occuring as a result of both men “fighting and tackling for the ball” and that Prendergast “just swung out and struck Jonathan Clarke in the face” before Mr Clarke “fell to the ground”.

While neither account in any way justified what happened, Mr Justice Sheehan said the referee's report impacted Prendergast's level of culpability.

There was “considerable difference” between an unprovoked attack off the ball and the account given by the referee, the judge said.

It seemed the sentencing judge proceeded on the version of events given by the injured party, Mr Justice Sheehan said, and this was exemplified by his remark that 'what happened on the pitch that day was no different in principle to a street assault at night'.

Mr Justice Sheehan said “this amounts to an error in principle” but, he said, no fault attached to the sentencing judge. On the run of the case it seems he took the view that he was obliged to take the victim's account, Mr Justice Sheehan said.

He ought to have sentenced Prendergast on the basis of the referee's report being the proper context of the assault in this case, Mr Justice Sheehan said.

Given that the court held that this amounted to an error in principle, it was not necessary for the court to consider other grounds of appeal, he said.

Clarke sustained a ruptured eyeball and detached retina which resulted in three surgeries to his eye. The court heard that he has lost 95 per cent of the sight in his eye.

The harm done by Prendergast was described by Mr Clarke, Mr Justice Sheehan said.

At the time of the assault, Mr Clarke said it was unclear wether he had sustained brain damage aswell.

He was told he would have to have a CT scan and “my mind started to race when I heard this” but thankfully it was not the case.

Mr Clarke said he knew from the reaction of all those around him that his eye was in a terrible state.

Doctors “tried in vein” to reconstruct his eyeball but “I had no sight, I was blind”.

He said he was transferred to the Mater Hospital in Dublin, but even with the skills of a specialist there, “he could not save my eye”.

Mr Clarke had stated that he considers himseld disabled and will “never be the same again”.

He had recently graduated from University and for the work he had commmenced it was necessary for him to drive, the judge said. He was obliged to undergo a number of tests before he could drive and he fears this may be a difficulty for him in the future.

Prendergast's barrister, Michael Bowman SC, submitted that the judge erred in imposing the sentence on his client under three headings: That he incorrectly located the offence on the higher end of the scale; Failed to give appropriate weight to mitigating factors and erred in holding that the offence was so serious that it required the imposition of an immediate custodial sentence.

However, Mr Justice Sheehan said that having identified an error in principle it was not necessary to address other grounds of appeal.

Mr Justice Sheehan said the Court of Appeal was obliged to approach Prendergast's culpability on the basis of the referee's report.

If the Court of Appeal was approaching the case on the same basis as the Circuit Court judge, Mr Justice Sheehan said the court would have great difficulty interfering with Prendergast's sentence.

However, he was entitled to be treated in a different way.

The injuries were so serious, a prison sentence was warranted, the judge said.

However, “we take the view that the fact of imprisonment is more important than the duration of same”.

The court noted the mitigating factors and the compensation Prendergast had paid to the injured party. A probation report indicated that he was unlikely to reoffend and there were “impressive character references” submitted into court.

Mr Justice Sheehan, who sat with Mr Justice Alan Mahon and Mr Justice John Edwards, quashed Prendergast's original sentence and substituted in its place a sentence of 12 months imprisonment.

The court suspended the balance of that sentence on condiction he agreed to undertake 100 hours of community service.

He was required to enter into his own bond of €100 to keep the peace and be of good behaviour for 12 months and to undertake to do 100 hours of community service.

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