Wednesday 20 November 2019

Man jailed for killing boy (12) after setting makeshift den on fire loses appeal against conviction

Blaze victim Stephen Hughes
Blaze victim Stephen Hughes

Ruaidhrí Giblin

A man who set fire to a makeshift den causing the death of a 12-year-old boy has lost an appeal against his conviction for manslaughter.

Dermot Griffin (57) of Ballyfermot Road, Ballyfermot, in Dublin was found guilty following a 13-day trial of the manslaughter of Stephen Hughes (12) at Rossfield Avenue, Tallaght on September 1st, 2001.

He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court by Judge Patricia Ryan on June 23, 2014.

Griffin lost an appeal against his conviction today on all grounds.

Giving judgment in the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice George Birmingham said a fire was started in a makeshift den which resulted in the death of Stephen Hughes.

The den had been built by a group of children during August 2001. On the night in question Stephen Hughes (12) and Daryl Hall (14), had slept in the den. When it caught fire, Daryl managed to escape but sadly Stephen did not.

At trial the jury viewed footage from the house of a neighbour which showed an unidentified man approaching the make-shift den at around 5am, and the den catching fire immediately thereafter. The man appeared to have a dog with him.

Griffin was interviewed in 2001 and at that stage stated that he had stayed indoors on the night in question along with then partner, Tracy Deegan, who gave him an alibi.

He said that he only left the house after he heard screaming. His story was supported at the time by Ms Deegan and she confirmed this again in 2006 when the case was re-examined.

That year, 2006, a Linda Prentice informed gardaí that she had seen Griffin setting fire to the den after telling gardaí in 2001 that she had not seen anything.

Also in 2006, James Farrelly came forward to say he too had seen Griffin, and that he had threatened him, telling him he would kill him if he opened his mouth.

In 2012, Tracey Deegan admitted lying to gardaí in earlier investigations. She stated that Griffin left the house twice on the night of the fire and that he told her he was going to burn the hut down.

Mr Justice Birmingham said Ms Deegan, Ms Prentice and Mr Farrelly were significant witnesses at trial.

Dismissing the appeal, Mr Justice Birmingham said it was “striking” how many grounds of appeal involved complaints that the trial judge erred in failing to accede to requests to discharge the jury.

He said grounds of appeal related to RTÉ television broadcasts did not present any basis for suggesting that the jury should have been discharged and did not raise points “of substance”.

A ground contending that the jury should have been discharged when one juror made it known that two members of his family were gardaí had no “real substance”.

An issue related to the evidence of Ms Deegan and James Shields “could never have been a basis for discharging the jury”.

He said the evidence given by Jason Lambe did not provide a basis for discharging the jury. It was submitted that Mr Lambe refused to comply with the judge's directions to answer questions asked of him.

It was clear Mr Lambe did not find giving evidence easy. That was hardly surprising, Mr Justice Birmingham said, given that he had unsuccessfully tried to pull a 12-year-old from a burning hut.

Mr Lambe was subjected to “vigorous cross-examination” before being the subject of “robust comment” in the closing defence speech. It was not the case that he was unable to be cross examined, as had been submitted by the defence. Far from it, the judge said.

He said the defence had unsuccessfully applied for a directed verdict of not guilty on the basis of inconsistencies in the evidence of prosecution witness.

Mr Justice Birmigham said there were undoubtedly difficulties with the prosecution evidence and specifically with some of the prosecution witness.

However, the Court of Appeal agreed that the state of the evidence was properly left to the jury. The fact a number of witnesses had been heroin users was something that was made known to the jury and it was a factor to be evaluated by them.

It was well known to the jury that the witness had been heroin addicts and the jury was capable of considering the weight of the evidence and any inconsistencies in that evidence, in that light.

Finally, it was submitted that the cumulative effect of all matter rendered the trial unsatisfactory and the verdict unsafe.

Mr Justice Birmignham said the court was prepared to accept in principle that there may be cases where individual issues are identified which would not on an isolated basis result in a conviction being quashed but the cumulative effect would necessitate such a course. However, the Court of Appeal was quite satisfied “this is not such a case”.

Mr Justice Birmingham, who sat with Mr Justice Alan Mahon and Mr Justice John Edwards, said the complaints advanced did not, either individually or collectively, establish that the trial was unsatisfactory or the verdict unsafe. The appeal was therefore dismissed

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