Hit-and-run taxi driver (75) who knocked down and killed renowned psychiatrist has sentence halved on appeal

The late Dr Martin Lawlor (49) who died in a hit-and-run in December 2018.

Natasha Reid

The Court of Appeal has halved the four-year jail term imposed on a 75-year-old taxi driver, who left the scene of a fatal collision in which a renowned psychiatrist lost his life.

Dr Martin Lawlor (49) died of multiple catastrophic injuries after he was struck by a taxi being driven by Denis McSweeney in the early hours of December 15, 2018.

Dr Lawlor had been at an office Christmas party and was walking back to his accommodation when he was struck on the Airport Road in Cork city.

A consultant psychiatrist, he worked with the HSE in Cork but lived in Manchester with his family and was returning to Cork Airport to get a flight back to the UK.

McSweeney of Pouladuff Road, Ballyphehane, in the city pleaded guilty to four charges relating to the hit-and-run. They included failing to stop his vehicle after an occurrence, failing to keep the vehicle at or near the occurrence, failing to report an occurrence and failing to give appropriate information to gardaí.

His sentencing hearing took place at Cork Circuit Criminal Court in February of this year.

Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin heard that visibility was bad on the morning of the incident, with dense fog and heavy rain. There was also no footpath or street lighting at the location.

McSweeney was working at the time he struck Mr Lawlor. He initially told gardaí that he thought he had struck an animal but later accepted that he had hit a pedestrian.

His barrister, Donal O'Sullivan BL, told the court that his client had "panicked completely". He had not driven since, he said.

Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin said the offences were at the higher end of the scale and that a seven-year jail sentence would be appropriate.

However, he took into account McSweeney's early plea, that he had no previous convictions, was elderly and had shown remorse. He sentenced him to five years in prison, suspending the final year as long as Mr McSweeney be of good behaviour. He also disqualified him from driving for 20 years.

The father and grandfather today appealed against the severity of that sentence to the Court of Appeal.

Mr O’Sullivan said that the headline sentence should not have been placed at the higher end of the scale.

“He left the scene,” he said. “For 35 minutes of his entire life, he had left the scene before returning.”

He said that there had been significant mitigating factors.

“I had hoped that he might obtain a fully suspended sentence,” he said.

Sinead Behan BL responded on behalf of the DPP. “I would have to say that leaving the scene with an individual in that position has a moral culpability at a very high level,” she said.

However, she accepted that there was ‘a dearth of case law’ in this area.

Court President Mr Justice George Birmingham said that it was “certainly unusual for someone who comes before the court in their mid-70s without previous convictions to end up with a sentence of that magnitude”.

Mr Justice Birmingham, presiding, with Mr Justice John Edwards and Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly took some time to consider the matter.

He later noted that McSweeney had come across gardaí investigating the death later that morning. Gardaí asked him about the damage to his taxi. After initial denials, he had admitted striking a pedestrian.

The court noted that he had driven professionally almost all of his life but had surrendered his licence after the incident and put his car up for sale.

Mr Justice Birmingham remarked that the sentencing judge had not believed that McSweeney had acted out of panic, but thought that he had acted out of callousness.

However, he said that the Court of Appeal found evidence of very confused thinking, and that this case lacked aggravating factors often found in other cases.

The court found the sentence to be excessive and quashed it, substituting it with one of two years instead.