Tuesday 25 June 2019

Not guilty verdict in single punch student assault case

Ali Azeez who was found not guilty of assaulting a student in an early morning incident at Castle Street. Pic: Donal Hackett
Ali Azeez who was found not guilty of assaulting a student in an early morning incident at Castle Street. Pic: Donal Hackett

A 23-year-old man has been found not guilty of assaulting a student who ended up with life threatening injuries following a single punch to the face that knocked him to the ground fracturing his skull.

A jury of nine women and three men took just over three and a half hours to find the accused, Ali Ameer Azeez, an Iraqi national, not guilty by unanimous verdict of intentionally or recklessly causing serious harm to Cavan student Stephen Finnegan (23) following an incident at Castle Street on September 23rd 2014.

The jury also found Azeez, of Ard Carin, Cairns Road, Sligo not guilty by a majority of 10/2 of assault causing harm to Mr Finnegan.

The verdicts came on Wednesday afternoon last following a six day trial at Sligo Circuit Court before Judge John Aylmer.

The trial heard that Mr Finnegan and his then girlfriend, Olga Reilly, both students at IT Sligo, had been out for the night and at 2.45am had gone to Best's takeaway on Castle Street after leaving Pure nightclub nearby.

Ms Reilly told the trial that they decided to have a race down the street on their way to another chipper and that as she passed two men on the footpath she heard them call her "f***ing horss b***h" and "f***ing tramp."

These allegations were denied by the men, the accused and his friend Adam Balogh, a Hungarian national.

An altercation ensued on the footpath with Ms Reilly saying she asked the men why they had insulted her. The men claimed they had been talking about horses and betting.

CCTV of the incident from Garda cameras were shown to the jury. Mr Finnegan could be seen pushing the accused who responded with a punch to Mr Finnegan's shoulder.

The accused walked away and Mr Finnegan goes after him on to the road and swings more punches at him. The accused throws one punch which lands on Mr Finnegan's jaw and he is knocked to the ground and loses consciousness.

The accused and his friend then run from the scene. Mr Finnegan suffered a fractured eye socket, jaw and skull. He underwent surgery for his facial injuries and had three plates inserted.

Earlier during her closing speech to the jury, prosecuting counsel, Dara Foynes said Mr Finnegan was intoxicated and the accused had certainly intended to hit him and hit him hard and that he was reckless that a serious injury would follow.

"Heads and road surfaces are not a good match," she said. Ms Foynes told the jury that they must look carefully at the CCTV coverage of the incident and the account given by the accused.

Ms Foynes said there had been interaction between Mr Finnegan, Ms. Brien and the accused and his friend, Adam Balogh on the footpath at Castle Street.

However, Ms Foynes said they should only concern themselves with what happened out on the roadway between Mr Finnegan and the accused. There were no other charges arising out of anything else.

She stressed to the jury that they should look at how the accused reacted after he delivered the blow that knocked Mr Finnegan to the ground and how he had departed the scene with Mr Balogh.

A witness who came on to the scene had tried to run after the men but could not catch them.

The jury were told that the question of intent was a question of fact for them but that someone was reckless if they disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk.

Ms Foynes said when someone is very drunk and is hit with a hard punch to the head they are going to fall and strike their head off the ground.

"Why do we all wear helmets and why do we not let drunk people drive cars?" she asked.

She suggested that there was evidence that the accused was guilty of both intentional and reckless behaviour.

Ms Foynes outlined how Ms Brien had come to an abrupt halt at Castle Street in front of the accused and Mr Balogh.

"Did she have a reason? Is it because she was called a f***ing horse b***h?"

It was never denied that the word horse had been used. Mr Balogh had said they were talking loudly. Ms Foynes said the accused and his friend ran from the scene leaving Mr Finnegan on the ground.

Self defence had been raised, she said but was only allowable in certain circumstances.

Justifiable use of force it was called but there had to be a correlation to the threat faced and whether the force used was justifiable and reasonable in the circumstances.

Defending counsel, Kerida Naidoo in his submission to the jury said no one was disputing that Mr Finnegan was badly injured and it wasn't contested that the accused had thrown the punch that caused those terrible injuries.

However, it was the defence's case that he was acting in self defence. He told the jury they had only one thing to decide and that is what was going through the accused's mind immediately before punching Mr Finnegan.

"Has the prosecution proved that what was on his mind is sufficient to convict him of both counts?" he asked.

Mr Naidoo said that while the incident was captured on CCTV which everyone had viewed, when the event unfolded the accused didn't have a pause button to see what was going to happen next. The timeframe of the incident was extremely short, less than two minutes.

Mr Finnegan had swung two blows at the accused who had responded to the second of those one second after it happened.

"So the prosecution say his thoughts made him a criminal in one second," said Mr Naidoo.

He added: "I suggest there is little or no evidence he positively intended causing either of those injuries with one punch."

Mr Naidoo went on to ask: "What was in his mind in the one second between Mr Finnegan swinging at him and the accused punching him?"

Mr Naidoo said that twice the accused had the chance to "lay into Mr Finnegan" but he didn't, walking away instead.

The situation was escalated by Mr Finnegan who had technically assaulted the accused three times before he was struck with the blow that knocked him to the ground.

Mr Naidoo said the accused had turned and walked away twice and on each occasion it was Mr Finnegan who brought him back in again.

"He (Azeez) avoided the conflict as best he could," he said.

M Naidoo said that in his own evidence Mr Finnegan said he was surprised at how violent he was when he saw the incident on CCTV and acknowledged his behaviour was out of character on the night.

His first reaction to Gardaí on seeing the footage was to apologise for starting it and for not walking away.

"Mr Finnegan had a bad night and he wouldn't stop," said Mr Naidoo.

Referring to fact the accused and his friend left the scene, Mr Naidoo said that fact is that innocent people do run away. Mr Finnegan had not been left on a deserted road and the accused knew there were other people there.

"They ran out of panic or afraid of not being believed or afraid of what might happen if they stayed and the accused needs to be given the benefit of the doubt on this," he said.

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