Louth man appeals severity of 14-year sentence after making ‘delusional’ decision to sack his legal team

Michael Collins (49) was found guilty of causing the death of Jillian Thornton (20) in Duleek crash in 2016

Michael Collins was jailed for 14 years in 2019.

Paul NeilanDrogheda Independent

An intoxicated driver who was jailed for 14 years for causing the death of a 20-year-old woman in Co Meath has appealed his conviction, with his lawyers arguing the unprecedented, "very radical proposition" that he should not have been allowed to represent himself during the trial.

Michael Collins (49) was jailed by Trim Circuit Court in July 2019 for causing the crash that claimed the life of Jillian Thornton seven years ago.

Following a 13-day trial, Collins, of St Finian’s Park, Drogheda, Co Louth, was found guilty of dangerous driving causing the death of Ms Thornton on May 27, 2016 at Waterside Great, Duleek, Co Meath.

Collins defended himself after sacking his legal team at the start of the trial and was also convicted on two charges of endangerment, 12 charges of dangerous driving and of driving under the influence of an intoxicant on the same date.

The court heard that Collins was on his way to a music festival in Mullingar on the night with the victim and a friend Alannah Byrne, who survived the crash.

Ms Thornton was killed when she was thrown from the back seat of the defendant’s car, which was split in two when it collided with another car near Ballymagarvey on the N2 after a 35-minute garda pursuit.

The court heard that Collins failed to stop for gardaí after driving the wrong way on a roundabout at Waterunder, Drogheda, and then continued through east Meath towards Slane and turning back towards Ashbourne.

The trial had heard recordings of 999 calls from the passengers in the car claiming the driver was going to crash unless gardaí called off the pursuit. One of the calls made just before the crash ended in a scream.

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The court heard Garda evidence of Collins speeding on the wrong side of the road, being involved in near-misses, driving head on at Garda vehicles, travelling without lights and weaving from side to side.

A Garda witness said the defendant appeared to have been playing “chicken” with other motorists.

Collins, who was found to have cannabis in his system on the night, later told gardaí his “head had been melted” and claimed in court he had been in fear for his life at the time, as someone had “put a hit” on him and he did not believe it was gardaí who were following him.

He said he was scared of being shot and believed he was being chased by would-be assassins.

He claimed that at one stage he was being followed by 10 Garda cars, some of which had tried to ram him, and that just before the crash his car was rammed into the other vehicle involved in the collision.

The court heard that later technical and other investigations found no evidence to support this claim.

At the Court of Appeal, Michael Lynn SC, for Collins, said his client should not have been permitted to conduct his own defence, submitting that Collins previously had episodes of paranoia and had attended a facility in Drogheda to address this.

Mr Lynn said Collins' trial was "not one in accordance with the law" because of the lack of legal representation for Collins, which raised "a difficult issue". Mr Lynn said that Collins chose to represent himself after sacking his legal team.

However, the barrister submitted that the trial was "not one functioning properly because that person is incapable of running a coherent defence".

Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy asked if Mr Lynn was submitting that a legal team should be forced on such defendants and was told "yes, in the interest of a fair trial".

Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy said that the proposition of forcing a legal team upon an individual would infringe on their right not to have lawyers and represent themself.

Mr Lynn said the "adversarial nature" of the criminal trial meant that it must be a fair procedure to involve legal representation when this applied in the case of a person who "is incapable of making a rational decision".

Mr Lynn said the trial judge in Collins' case had tried to persuade the defendant to be legally represented. The barrister said the trial judge also was faced with a scenario where it was considered whether the trial could proceed with Collins absent from the courtroom due to his behaviour. Mr Lynn said this course of action could have been possible if a legal team had been imposed on Collins.

Mr Justice George Birmingham noted that some jurisdictions, at a final appeals level, demanded all parties to have legal representation.

Ms Justice Kennedy asked Mr Lynn whether a trial judge should step in and stop a trial if it emerges during trial that a person is incompetent in representing themselves. Mr Lynn said this should be so.

"At that point it doesn't represent the adversarial process which is what we have chosen in the interests of justice," said Mr Lynn.

"A person's right to represent themselves can be over-ridden in the public interest. The waiver of legal representation has to be voluntary and an informed choice. They have to intelligently elect to do so," said Mr Lynn.

"In this case, the judge was very, very concerned and a family member called it "delusional" and that he [Collins] couldn't represent himself. Of course it wasn't an intelligent choice," said Mr Lynn.

Mr Justice Birmingham said that to dispense with available lawyers that the State pays for "is not an intelligent choice". "It's a free choice and that may be the end of it," he said.

"There is an overriding public interest which requires the trial to be run in accordance to law and this can't be described as a properly functioning trial," said Mr Lynn.

"It shouldn't have been permitted that the legal team came off. They can still go into court and test the evidence, as they do in mental health cases when they can't take instruction. That's to ensure a fair trial," said Mr Lynn.

Mr Justice Birmingham said that Collins was found fit to be tried, made a decision that he is representing himself and "fired his team and a very experienced senior counsel provided by the State".

Mr Justice Birmingham described Mr Lynn's submission as a "very radical proposition - I think without precedent in the Irish courts".

Carl Hanahoe BL, for the State, said that people had a right to represent themselves and that the adversarial system was so that all participants have that right. "Mr Collins has the right to defend himself and has his right to conduct the defence as he sees fit," said Mr Hanahoe.

"If it offends our sense of what ought to have occurred that can't be used as a vehicle to deprive him of the right to do it and do it as he [Collins] saw fit. We can't deprive him of that fundamental right," said the barrister.

Mr Hanahoe said there was no evidence to suggest that Collins lacked capacity to make the decision to represent himself.

"Does it offend our sense of how we feel a trial should be conducted? It might have been an utterly unreasonable decision but other than that there's not a shred of evidence he wasn't competent," said Mr Hanahoe, who added that a medical report found Collins to not be suffering any mental illness.

Mr Justice Birmingham said the court would reserve its judgement in the matter.