NI: Sentence for possession of explosives deemed neither manifestly excessive nor wrong

Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal has upheld a sentence given by the Crown Court in respect of a man who had been found in possession of components of a pipe bomb in January 2014.

Although the appellant, Sean Ruddy, had initially denied the offence, eight months prior to his trial on 26 August 2015, he had issued a Statement of Facts in which he acknowledged the potential of the items and that they could be constructed into a potentially harmful and dangerous device. He further acknowledged that he had no defence or excuse for his possession of the relevant items.

Due to a number of disclosure issues relating to his co-accused, the appellant was unable to formally enter a guilty plea until the morning of his trial. The prosecution accepted that his plea should be treated as having been made at the earliest opportunity.

A number of reports were considered during sentencing. It was noted that the appellant had previous convictions but not for similar offending, was 40, married with two sons, and had poor health.

The court was supplied with a number of character references who spoke highly of the appellant, and with a number of certificates that confirm completion of a number of courses by the appellant.

The trial judge considered the starting point to be 12 years imprisonment, and allocated a 20% discount for the plea of guilty. As an act of mercy, due to the appellant’s poor health, a total discount of one-third was given.

The appellant argued that the sentence was manifestly excessive and wrong, as the learned trial Judge gave insufficient reduction for the plea of guilty.

It was argued that the co-accused had been involved in a legal dispute about disclosure. The outcome of this dispute may have nullified proceedings or led to proceedings against the appellant being discontinued. In these circumstances the plea could not be formally entered until after the appellant knew the outcome of the ex parte discovery proceedings. As a result of these circumstances the prosecution accepted the plea was to be treated as being entered at the earliest opportunity.

Furthermore, the appellant had made admissions at the scene and made a full admission of guilt in his Statement of Facts, a position he had not resiled from, had shown remorse, and had saved the court time and expense.

The Court noted that following R v Connolly NIJB 226 it is long established that where an accused pleads guilty the sentencer should recognise that fact by imposing a lesser sentence than would otherwise be appropriate.

Further, Article 33(1) of the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 provides that a court should take into account the stage in the proceedings for the offence at which the offender indicated his intention to plead guilty, and the circumstances in which this indication was given.

In Attorney General’’s Reference No 1 of 2006 NICA 4, it was found that the greatest discount is reserved for those cases where a defendant admits his guilt at the outset, and would not be given to those who refused to answer or denied guilt during police interview.

The Court also noted the rationale behind discounts, as identified in R v Connolly as being “to reflect the fact that the plea is an indication of remorse, has led to the saving of time and has convenienced witnesses who would otherwise have had to attend court.”

The Court also noted R v McShane NIJB 64, which notes that discount should not be given if a late plea has been entered or if a plea has been delayed deliberately or where there is an open and shut case against the accused.

“That possibility will increase if the accused has a substantial and relevant criminal record and the offences to which the accused has pleaded guilty are particularly serious and of a type of which he has been frequently convicted in the past.”

Thus, when determining the level of credit to be given for a guilty plea, the Court found that it must consider the time at which the plea was entered and whether, in all the circumstances of the case, the plea indicated remorse, whether it led to saving of time or convenience of witnesses and if so, the extent of such saving and convenience.

The Court found that the trial Judge had treated the plea as having been made on the morning of the hearing and thus failed, in accordance with the agreement of all the parties, to treat the plea as having been made at the earliest opportunity.

However, the Court found that even if this matter had been brought to his attention this would not have led to a variation in the sentence imposed.

It was found that this was a case where the prosecution case was strong, as the appellant had been caught red-handed.

Further, the appellant delayed in making a full admission until one year after the offence. Although the appellant made admissions at the scene, the attitude of the appellant at police interviews and the stance taken by him in his defence statement all demonstrate that the appellant did not show remorse for his actions until the Statement of Facts was filed some 12 months post offence.

Although there was a saving of time and witnesses were convenienced by the guilty plea, the extent of such convenience was not as great as in cases where for example, a vulnerable witness was convenienced by not having to give evidence.

Thus, this was not a case in which the appellant was entitled to full credit for his guilty plea. The credit of 20% properly reflected the strength of the Crown case, the appellant’s lack of remorse as demonstrated by his lack of co-operation at interview and his denial of the offence in his defence statement and the extent of time saved and convenience afforded to the witnesses in a case of this nature.

The appeal was therefore dismissed.

  • by Rachel Killean for Irish Legal News
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