Court drops six-month prison term on garda who killed pedestrian

 

A Garda who knocked down and killed a 28-year-old pedestrian in Portarlington, Co Laois, last December had a six-month prison sentence rescinded yesterday at Portlaoise Circuit Court, sitting in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Martin Shankey-Smith (39), formerly of Chestnut Grove, Dunboyne, Co Meath, appealed against the severity of the sentence imposed by Judge Mary Martin at Portarlington District Court in July, after he pleaded guilty to driving with excess alcohol in his system, careless driving, failing to stop following an accident and failing to remain at the scene of an accident at Lea, Portarlington, on December 27th, 1997.

On conviction he was sentenced to six months' imprisonment on the drunk driving charge and was fined and disqualified from driving for 10 years. Yesterday he told the court he was still receiving psychiatric treatment.

His counsel, Mr Barry White SC, stressed to Judge Carroll Moran that the appeal was against the conviction for drunk driving only, for which his client had received a six-month prison sentence and been fined £1,000 with £75 costs, as well as being disqualified for two years.

The circumstances of the accident were outlined by Mr Donal Dunne, State Solicitor for Laois. He said that Mr Alan Jones and Mr David Jones, brothers, attended a disco at Portarlington Rugby Club on December 26th last. The appellant also attended with his girlfriend, whom he left home before returning in the direction of the club.

The disco had just finished at 2 a.m. and Mr Alan Jones was walking home towards Portarlington, followed by his brother, when they were struck by a red sports car driven by the appellant. Alan was carried some distance on the bonnet of the car before being thrown off. He died almost instantly. His brother, David, was also struck by the car but was not seriously injured.

Mr Dunne said the car did not stop but continued towards Monasterevin. The appellant telephoned his girlfriend in a very distressed state and told her he had knocked someone down. She advised him to return to the scene of the accident, which he did, and upon making himself known as the driver of the car involved and admitting that he had consumed five or six pints of lager he was arrested and brought to Portlaoise Garda station. There he provided a specimen of urine which was found to contain an alcohol level of 119 mg.

Insp Philip Lyons, who was in charge of the investigation, agreed that the facts were as set out by Mr Dunne. Replying to Mr White, he agreed that there was no public lighting in the vicinity of the accident. The deceased had been wearing dark clothing with no reflective material, and he and his friends had had their backs to oncoming traffic.

The witness said it appeared that the appellant had contacted his girlfriend by phone within minutes of the accident and had then returned to the scene in a very distressed state.

Asked by Mr White about Garda Shankey-Smith's career, Insp Lyons said he had joined the force in 1983 and had an impeccable record. He had served on peacekeeping missions in Angola and the former Yugoslavia and had been awarded medals in recognition of this service. Asked what effect the outcome of this case might have on the appellant's career, Insp Lyons said that would be a matter for the Commissioner, but he thought that if a prison sentence was imposed it would result in dismissal from the force.

Mr Shankey-Smith in evidence said he could not express how sorry he was at what had happened. Describing the accident, he said he had driven less than half a mile back after leaving his girlfriend when he suddenly got a glimpse of people walking on his right and then felt a bang on his left. "I lost it and panicked," he admitted.

He said his whole life and the lives of the Jones family had been affected by the accident. He had been receiving psychiatric treatment and was now confined to working indoors.

Mr White, pleading for leniency, argued that it was not a case of his client being incapable of driving. The concentration of alcohol was only 12 mg above the legal limit and, in fact, would have been within the limit a few years ago. The statutory disqualification for such a level was three months, he said.

Mr White said extreme distress had been caused to the victim's family, and the real tragedy was that nothing would bring their son and brother back.

In his judgment Judge Moran said that while he had great sympathy for all the parties concerned, the preponderance of sympathy must go to the family of the deceased. He was a young man of 29 with a girlfriend, a good job and a very promising future, all of which had been snuffed out.

The judge said in deciding the case he must be dispassionate. The law did not recognise the concept of an eye for an eye, and cases such as this were very difficult to decide. The reading of 119 mg was a low concentration, and a number of appeals which he had heard the previous day had been against conviction for levels well in excess of that.

Judge Moran pointed out that the appellant had not been accused of dangerous driving causing death, and if he had he might well have been acquitted. He felt it would be wrong to send Mr Shankey-Smith to prison. Instead he had considered increasing the monetary penalties but had decided against doing so as a human life was not to be valued in such terms.

Rescinding the prison sentence, the judge affirmed the fines and driving ban and said he hoped the deceased man's family would understand the reasoning behind his decision.