TWO brothers who set fire to a house in which their elderly aunt and her partner were sleeping walked free from court yesterday -- after a judge decided that they did not intend to harm the occupants.
James Walsh (29) and Michael Walsh (22), both of Garra West, Ballyduff Upper, Co Waterford, were accused of committing arson to the house -- owned by James Walsh -- and pleaded not guilty before a jury.
And Judge Thomas Teehan directed the jury at Waterford Circuit Court to find the defendants not guilty as it was not illegal, in itself, for James Walsh to damage his own property.
There was evidence that they helped their aunt and her partner to get out of the house. Michael Walsh played a lesser role in the "enterprise", the judge found.
Both men were bound to the peace -- James for five years and Michael for two years -- with Judge Teehan describing their actions in setting fire to the house on March 28, 2008, as "undoubtedly foolhardy".
James was in financial difficulty at the time and wanted to sell the house, but wanted his aunt out of the property. He got his brother to help him set fire to the house.
His father, James Snr, had previously signed over the property to him -- but on condition that the aunt and her partner be allowed to remain living there.
The trial was earlier told the defendants' aunt, Eileen Walsh, and her blind partner, Jack O'Sullivan, were in bed on the night in question. James knocked on the bedroom door and told them to get out, as the house was on fire.
Detective Garda Denis Ryan said he interviewed James Walsh, who had debts of €34,000 at the time, a number of times in the aftermath of the fire. On the fifth occasion, James admitted bringing a can of petrol into the house and laying a trail from a loft room down to the door.
He then threw a lit match on the petrol and it ignited immediately, he told Det Gda Ryan.
He ran to the couple's room and told them to get out of the house, he said. It was never his intention for them to be injured in the fire.
Following applications from defending barristers, the judge said that, while deliberately setting a property on fire was a foolhardy act, he had to ask if it was reckless in law.
"I have to ask at this stage of the trial: 'Could a conviction for recklessly endangering the life of another be regarded as safe?' I have come to the conclusion that it could not."
Michael Walsh's "involvement in this escapade was very much of a lesser character" than that of his brother, the judge said. It would be "perverse" to let the trial against him continue when his accomplice had been acquitted.
He directed the jury to find both men not guilty.