Court of Appeal: Man convicted of ‘one punch’ manslaughter has sentence increased

The Court of Appeal has increased a man’s five-year sentence for manslaughter to seven years following a leniency appeal taken by the DPP.

The judges said that, in concluding that the offence is properly placed at the higher end of the medium culpability band, the court does not intend to suggest that this is where all ‘one punch’ manslaughter cases should be placed.


Craig McGrath was found guilty of a section 3 assault of another man committed on 18 August 2017, which consisted of an unprovoked attack first within and then immediately outside a nightclub in Waterford which resulted in the victim being knocked unconscious.

He was found further guilty in May 2019 of having killed a man in an unprovoked attack on the street while he was on bail for the assault and was jailed for five years for manslaughter. He punched the deceased in the face with sufficient force to knock him to the ground, resulting in him sustaining a fractured skull and fatal brain injury. The Court was also told that the facial injuries suffered by the deceased were caused by the punches, not by the impact of striking the ground.

Judge Eugene O’Kelly, in the Circuit Court, placed the assault “at the upper end of the mid-range on the scale of gravity for s.3 assault” and gave a headline sentence of three-and-a-half years’ imprisonment. He imposed a five-year prison sentence for the manslaughter and a consecutive two-and-a-half years for the assault causing harm contrary to section 3 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997, suspending two years of the latter sentence, leaving a net sentence of five-and-a-half years.

He identified a number of aggravating factors in respect of the section 3 assault. The attack continued after it was initially stopped by security staff, and the blow that had knocked the victim unconscious had been delivered without warning and in the presence of security staff.

The judge identified a number of aggravating factors with regard to the manslaughter offence. They included the serious nature of the offence, and the “devastating and enduring effect it had, and would continue to have”, on the deceased’s family. Such was the violence of the blows that the victim had suffered depressed and fragmented fractures of his facial bones even before he hit the ground. At the time of the manslaughter offence, Mr McGrath was on bail on the section 3 assault. Further, Mr McGrath appeared to have asked the person with him at the time of the assault to give a false statement to the Gardaí.

The Director of Public Prosecutions brought a leniency appeal seeking a review of the sentences imposed on the Mr McGrath pursuant to section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 1993 (as amended). The Director asserted that the sentence of two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment with two years suspended for the section 3 assault was unduly lenient and that the sentence of five years for manslaughter was unduly lenient and did not properly reflect the aggravating factors.

The Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal noted the challenges of sentencing in manslaughter cases raised by Mr Justice Charleton in DPP v Mahon, in that the offence covers a broad band of conduct “from intentional killing under provocation, to excessive force in self-defence, to criminal negligence in the management of a machine or of a car, to assault without intent to kill or cause serious injury…”

The Court of Appeal said that “just as there is a broad spectrum of manslaughter cases, there is also a spectrum of so-called ‘one punch’ manslaughter cases”. In certain cases, such as DPP v Hutchinson, the assault may be very minor, with the fatality occurring because the deceased stumbles or is knocked to the ground and where, “if the deceased had not struck their head, they would not have suffered any or any significant injury”.

The judgment of the court delivered by Mr Justice Maurice Collins noted that the judgment in Hutchinson records that the evidence in that case indicated the single punch thrown by the accused “as not being of particular force”. Mr McGrath’s case did not involve a single punch; the evidence was that he had hit his victim in rapid succession, which caused immediate and serious injury to the deceased. Even if the victim had not fallen in a way that resulted in him hitting his head, fracturing his skull and suffering the fatal brain injuries, Mr McGrath would nonetheless have been guilty of a very serious assault. The court opined that the punches delivered by Mr McGrath were clearly of “tremendous force”, having regard to the evidence of the injuries that the victim suffered before ever he hit the ground.

The Court disagreed with counsel for Mr McGrath, who submitted that the fact that DPP v Hutchinson is cited in Mahon as a case in the “medium culpability” essentially meant that all ‘one-punch’ manslaughter cases must be so regarded. “Such an approach would involve an approach to sentencing based on superficial labelling rather than principle and, in the Court’s view, would be wholly inconsistent with Mahon.”

The Court left unchanged the sentence for the assault, and substituted a sentence of seven years’ imprisonment for the five-year sentence imposed by the Circuit Court for the manslaughter offence, that sentence to run consecutively to the section 3 sentence in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1984.

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