Saturday 24 August 2019

Man jailed for €1.1m diamond heist has sentence cut on appeal

Vaidas Pinelis leaving court. Photo: Andrew Downes
Vaidas Pinelis leaving court. Photo: Andrew Downes

Ruaidhrí Giblin

A man jailed for the armed robbery of more than €1.1 million worth of diamond rings and watches from a Galway jewellers has had his prison sentence cut on appeal.

Lithuanian national Irmantas Paulauskas (39), of no fixed abode, had pleaded not guilty to robbery of €1.1 million worth of stock from Hartmann jewellers on William Street, Galway city, as well as possession of an imitation firearm with a silencer fitted on the same occasion on February 11, 2015.

He was found guilty by a jury at Galway Circuit Criminal Court and was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment by Judge Rory McCabe on May 12, 2016.

Paulauskas lost an appeal against his conviction today but successfully appealed his sentence with the three-judge Court of Appeal holding that a distinction should be made because the robbery involved imitation firearms rather than actual loaded guns.

Giving judgment, Mr Justice George Birmingham said four males, including Paulauskas, entered the jewellery shop at 10.42am on the morning in question dressed in dark clothes, wearing gloves and with their faces partially covered. The raiders were carrying imitation firearms and lump hammers, the court heard.

Approximately 90 seconds later, the same four men, having held the shop up at gunpoint, left the premises with diamond rings and watches worth €1.139 million.

Mr Justice Birmingham said a number of civilians witnessed the robbery and its aftermath. They saw a number of men walking single file from the scene and decided to follow them.

Fortuitously, there were a number of gardaí in Galway city centre that morning, the judge said. They saw a male moving quickly with a phone to his ear who, it turned out, was a civilian in contact with gardaí, reporting to them what was going on. The detectives spoke to this civilian and they proceeded.

Paulauskas and another suspect were apprehended, restrained and arrested after a struggle.

Two other suspects were arrested a little later as they were awaiting for a bus from Galway to Dublin. A follow up search recovered the stolen jewellery bar one diamond ring which was subsequently handed in to gardaí by a member of the public who said she had found it on Dock Road.

The prosecution case was that Paulauskas and his co-accused were caught in the act or “all but caught in the act”.

The defence emphasised the absence of DNA or forensic evidence and submitted that the case was essentially one of visual identification.

Under cross examination, the civilian witnesses accepted that, while they had been in active pursuit and were observing the individuals throughout, there was a period of some seconds – no more than 10 seconds - when Paulauskas had turned a corner and was out of sight.

The trial judge warned the jury to be careful in considering this aspect of the case. He said history had shown there were plenty of cases of mistaken identity. Paulauskas' barrister at trial, Brendan Browne BL, asked for a specific 'Casey' warning on the facts of the case and in response the trial judge said he had already indicated that there was a gap in the identification and that he had warned the jury in a non-stereotypical fashion.

The Court of Appeal viewed the trial judge's warning to the jury as adequate despite submissions from Paulauskas' senior counsel, Damien Colgan SC. Mr Justice Birmingham said it was not a classic identification case and, in truth, it was a “caught in the act or hot pursuit case”.

It was a very strong case, the judge said. Paulauskas was apprehended wearing glasses, a black hat, gloves and was in possession of silver coloured handcuffs.

He had engaged in a struggle with plain-clothes gardaí and subsequently gave the explanation that he thought he might have been getting kidnapped.

Various items of clothing he was wearing when arrested were put to him and his response was “not mine. Nothing to do with me”.

Mr Justice Birmingham, who sat with Mr Justice John Edwards and Mr Justice John Hedigan, said the Court of Appeal was satisfied that Paulauskas' conviction was safe and his conviction appeal was dismissed.

Turning to the question of sentence, Mr Justice Birmingham said Paulauskas' accomplices had pleaded guilty to the offence and were given sentences of eight years imprisonment.

In Paulauskas' case, there was no plea and no expression of remorse. Even at the sentence hearing there was “no willingness to accept belatedly the jury verdict”, Mr Justice Birmingham said. He had a significant previous criminal record including an eight-year prison sentence imposed for grievous bodily harm.

Mr Justice Birmingham said it was a very serious offence. It was obviously planned and pre-meditated. It must have been a terrifying experience for the members of staff who were “held up”, the judge said.

The rewards that would have been achieved had the robbery been successful were very considerable – more than €1 million worth of jewellery.

In those circumstances, the case had to be met with a “very significant sentence indeed”.

Mr Justice Birmingham said the court paid some attention to the fact the robbery involved imitation firearms rather than actual loaded guns. He said robberies involving actual loaded firearms were in a graver category than what the court was dealing with here. It seemed it was proper to draw some distinction, he said.

For that reason, the court felt some limited accommodation was appropriate.

The Court of Appeal identified 13 years as the starting point for the sentence rather than 15. As in the Circuit Court, one year was discounted from the starting point due to the fact that imprisonment was more difficult for foreign nationals, leaving Paulauskas with a net sentence of 12 years.

“Let it be said clearly and without equivocation that the use of imitation firearms is a very serious matter. By definition, those to whom the firearms are produced don't know that the firearms are real or otherwise,” Mr Justice Birmingham said.

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