NI: Court of Appeal: Unduly lenient sentence for attempted murder increased to 11 years

A man who pleaded guilty shortly before trial to offences of attempted murder, criminal damage, and resisting police, has had his sentence for attempted murder increased after the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal agreed with the Director of Public Prosecutions that the initial sentence was unduly lenient.

Describing the persistent and prolonged attack which involved the victim’s face being “pummelled” and his head stamped on even after his body had gone limp, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, said the manner in which the offence had been committed was an aggravating factor and that the starting point was a sentence of 14 years.

Frenzied and uncontrolled attack

On 21 July 2017, Martin Loughlin had been taking drugs and alcohol for two days when he assaulted another man in a “frenzied and uncontrolled” attack, leaving the victim in intensive care. Mr Loughlin and another man assaulted the victim from behind, causing the victim to collapse, and continued to assault the victim as he was on the ground.

CCTV evidence showed Mr Loughlin had repeatedly punched the victim in the face as he sat on top of him, and repeatedly kicked and jumped on the victim’s head – landing in excess of 20 blows in a prolonged and persistent assault.

Mr Loughlin’s co-accused attempted to pull him off the victim, but Mr Loughlin returned to continue the assault and was only interrupted by the PSNI arriving on the scene.

When he was arrested, Mr Loughlin alleged that he had acted in self-defence and maintained this stance despite being shown the CCTV evidence of his relentless attack.

At the time of the attack, Mr Loughlin was subject to suspended sentences and a probation order.

The victim was admitted to intensive care where he remained critical until 23 July 2017. He had multiple facial fractures, requiring significant immediate reconstruction and ongoing surgeries, and thereafter experienced low mood, anxiety symptoms and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Initial sentencing for attempted murder

Mr Loughlin pleaded guilty shortly before his trial was due to commence to the offences of attempted murder, criminal damage and resisting police.

The trial judge noted that the attack was a random encounter. He also recognised the advice in the English sentencing guidelines that care needed to be taken to ensure no double counting because an essential element of the offence charged might in other circumstances be an aggravating factor.

The defence submitted that the sustained nature of the attack was not an aggravating factor, but the trial judge concluded that the several occasions on which the offender returned to the defenceless victim to resume the assault despite the efforts of his co-accused to take him away was an aggravating factor.

The trial judge identified a starting point of nine years, and gave significant credit for the plea and other mitigating factors by reducing the sentence to one of seven years (comprising three-and-a-half years in custody and the same on licence). The trial judge imposed concurrent sentences on the other counts.

Court of Appeal

Submitting that it was unduly lenient, the Director of Public Prosecutions referred the sentence for the attempted murder to the Court of Appeal.

Counsel for Mr Loughlin submitted that the sentence was “merciful but not unduly lenient”. While it was accepted that the CCTV evidence was “appalling”, it was contended that the circumstances of the commission of the offence were not aggravating features.

There were three aspects to the attack:

  1. Mr Loughlin got on top of the victim and continued striking him with his fists in the face and continued to do so when it was clear from the CCTV that the victim was no longer responding to that portion of the attack.
  2. Mr Loughlin then stamped on the victim about 20 times with his shod foot
  3. After being stopped and taken away by his co-accused, Mr Loughlin returned to continue the attack on the then helpless victim.

Delivering the judgment of the Court of Appeal, Sir Declan said “the combination of features in a case of this kind is relevant to the assessment of culpability. This was a persistent attack over a prolonged period where the victim’s face was pummelled by the [appellant’s] fists and his head was subject to repeated stamping. Much of this continued after the victim’s body had gone limp, he was offering no resistance and was incapable of any self-protection. The manner in which an offence is committed can be an aggravating feature and was so in this case.”

Sir Declan considered that, having regard to the aggravating and mitigating factors before making allowance for the plea of guilty, the starting point in this case was a sentence of 14 years.

Allowing the appeal, the Court substituted a determinate custodial sentence of 11 years for the offence of attempted murder, together with a three-month consecutive sentence arising from the outstanding suspended sentences. Half of the total sentence will be spent in custody and half on licence.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News
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