Wednesday 22 November 2017

Mother: 'He was a beautiful bright ray of sunshine'

Stephen Hughes
Stephen Hughes

By Declan Brennan

The man convicted last month of causing the death of a boy 13 years ago by setting a children's makeshift den on fire has a criminal record going back to 1977, a court has heard.

Stephen Hughes was 12 years old in 2001 when he died in the fire in the den where he had been sleeping overnight.

Dermot Griffin (54) of Ballyfermot Road, Ballyfermot had pleaded not guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to manslaughter at Rossfield Avenue, Tallaght on September 1, 2001.

After a 13 day trial last month a jury of six men and six women returned a majority verdict of guilty after six hours of deliberations.

This morning Judge Patricia Ryan said she needed time to consider her sentence and remanded Griffin in continuing custody until June 23 next.

Elizabeth Hughes said that her whole family have lived with the "unbelievable pain" of losing her first born son.

In a victim impact statement read to the court she said: "He was a beautiful bright ray of sunshine. He was just a child. The last 13 years will always be the longest and saddest I have endured. I pray that from today my son will be able to rest in peace knowing that justice has finally been done".

Detective Sergeant Mary Fitzpatrick told Mary Rose Gearty SC, prosecuting, that Griffin’s 39 previous convictions include convictions for assault causing harm, burglary and robbery.

They go back to offences committed in 1977 and dealt with in the Children’s Court.

In November 1996 the Central Criminal Court imposed a sentence of four years imprisonment for offences under the firearms act.

Griffin also served a seven year sentence after he was convicted of drug dealing in 1985.

Bernard Condon SC, defending, said his client was a father of four who was a heroin addict at the time of the offence.  He submitted that this was not a case of an intentional act of killing someone.

Ms Gearty said the Director of Public Prosecutions put this case at the severe end in terms of manslaughter offences.

The main evidence in the case came from three witnesses who placed Griffin at the scene. Under cross examination they admitted they were abusing heroin at the time and had given statements to gardai at the time of the fatal fire which conflicted with their later statements and their evidence to the jury.

Ms Gearty said that a "very dramatic change" came in the case in 2012 when one of these witnesses, Tracey Deegan, came forward and told gardai she had lied in 2001 to cover for Griffin.

Ms Deegan (38) said that Griffin, her former partner, wanted to burn the hut because “he didn't want joyriders in the area, he didn't want guards in the area”.

Daryl Hall, who was aged 14 at the time, described how he scrambled out of the burning hut and tried in vain to rescue his friend.

He said he was woken by screams. “I heard screaming and hands pushing on my back. I remember hearing ‘go go’, and ‘aagh’.”

Mr Hall said he could see nothing except smoke. He said he pushed aside a pallet acting as a wall and pulled himself through and up onto an outside wall.

“I thought he was behind me. When I got on the wall, standing on the wall, I jumped back down. I tried to lift up the door, I heard him coughing,” he said.

He was unable to lift the hut open again and got back up on the wall and started screaming for help.

He said that a number of people came over including Griffin. The witness said the accused asked, “was there someone in there?” and then put his hands on his head.

In her victim impact report the boy’s mother said: “The grief, anguish and loss that I have felt is still with me. The hours and hours of counselling have not helped.

“The ache in my arms of the longing to hold my baby is still there. I still grieve for my child every day.”

She said that her other children talk about her first born son every day and said: “Four generations in the family have felt this unbelievable pain. We didn’t celebrate Christmas. Any occasion is hard to celebrate. Christmas comes and goes every year leaving us with an ache in our hearts.”

Ms Hughes said her whole family have been left devastated by her son’s death.

“He was a beautiful sweet innocent child enjoying his childhood. I thank God this day has come. Stephen will finally be able to rest in peace knowing that justice has finally been done.”

Mr Hall said that he and the victim and other children from the neighbourhood had been building the makeshift hut using wooden pallets, plywood sheets, old doors and carpets to act as walls.

He said they had a carpet floor, a table and chairs, a foam mattress and a sofa seat from a bus. “We made it into a little home. I could draw you a picture of it now,” he said.

He told the court that on the night of the fatal fire he, Stephen Hughes and other children had met up at the hut. He said it was after dark but they lit candles and had a torch. 

By 2am Stephen and the witness were the only ones left in the hut and Mr Hall said he remembers seeing his friend eat a jelly sweet before they fell asleep.

The jury heard that in 2011 Griffin's former partner Tracey Deegan (38) told gardai that Griffin was at home with her on the night and told her he was going out to burn it down.

She said that he went out and came back and told her he had felt a foot in the hut but that he still intended to set it on fire. He took some paper and went out again, she told the court.

Shortly after his return the couple heard shouting and they both went out and saw the fire.

She said: "Dermot looked at me in a shocked manner. He said there were kids in that".

Ms Deegan had originally told gardai in 2001 that Griffin had stayed on the sofa with her all that night after they had smoked heroin and watched a movie. She told this trial that she was covering up for Griffin and had been coached.

A neighbour Linda Prentice, who was also a heroin addict at the time, said she saw Griffin throw a lit white object into the hut and that the hut then went on fire. 

The trial also heard that James Farrelly told gardai that Griffin had come up to him on the night and told him "if you open your mouth he'll kill me".

When gardai put some of these witness statements to Griffin in 2006 he told them: “I guarantee you it's all lies. We'll prove it in court. I want it to go to court. I want to have it dealt with.”

Another witness, Jason Lambe, said that Griffin had told him not to mention his name to the gardai.

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