Acquittal does not sanction homeowners to kill burglars

Case is first of its kind since new laws were brought in after Nally controversy in 2004

The law no longer requires a homeowner to retreat from a burglar, and extends to lands immediately around a dwelling

The law no longer requires a homeowner to retreat from a burglar, and extends to lands immediately around a dwelling

 

The acquittal of Martin Keenan (20) for the murder of an intruder he found on his property is the first case of its kind since new laws were introduced in the wake of the Pádraig Nally controversy over a decade ago.

Nally, of Funshinaugh Cross, Claremorris, Co Mayo, shot dead John “Frog” Ward in October 2004. Nally said Ward (42), a father of 11 children from the Carrowbrowne halting site in Galway, had come to his farm to rob him, and that he had shot him in self-defence. Nally was jailed for six years for manslaughter and served 11 months before the case went to the Court of Criminal Appeal. He was acquitted after it was accepted he acted in self-defence.

The case prompted a major public debate about what level of force is reasonable in situations where people act to defend themselves from robbery or attack. The legal position on the rights of law-abiding citizens to strike out against intruders was unclear.

Reasonable force

The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 made clear reasonable force could be applied by somebody seeking to protect themselves or their family from injury, assault or detention. Force could also be used to protect one’s property from “destruction or damage caused by trespass”. However, where a citizen stood legally when simply confronting an intruder in their home was not specifically dealt with at the time.

To further complicate matters, the 1997 Act allowed for juries to consider whether a person finding an intruder in their home availed of an opportunity to retreat before using reasonable force. That provision appeared to undermine the right to use force.

However, the legal position was clarified somewhat in January 2012, with the enactment of the Criminal Law (Defence and the Dwelling) Act 2011. It allows for reasonable force by people who believe they need to use it to protect those in dwellings from assault, to protect property, to prevent a crime or to make an arrest. The law no longer requires a homeowner to retreat from a burglar, and extends to lands immediately around a dwelling. It is precisely those provisions Martin Keenan depended on in his defence while on trial for the murder of Wesley Mooney in June 2016.

Mr Keenan claimed the deceased had attacked him just outside the caravan. And he had picked up the nearest object to him and hit him with it. That object was one side of a garden shears. The dead man was stabbed twice; one wound so large it pierced both lungs and proved fatal.

Legal sources told The Irish Times that, in acquitting Mr Keenan the jury had accepted as true his statement he feared for his safety and lashed out at Mooney in self defence. The jury, said the sources, also believed Mr Keenan’s fears were objective and grounded in reality.

“The verdict means the jury believe he was in real fear. And [the jury accepted] any reasonable person would have felt the same fear had they been in that situation,” said one source. “It is a very tall order to get any jury to accept both of those features. And somebody could only be acquitted if the jury accepts both. That won’t happen too often.”

Another source agreed and said while the nature of the fatal injury and the weapon it was inflicted with were “upsetting”, no precedent had been established as to the type of injuries a homeowner could inflict on an intruder and “stay the right side” of the law.

“These events involving somebody finding an intruder in their home are very rare,” said the source. “The jury accepted [Mr Keenan] came home to find an intruder. And fearing that intruder he took the closest object to him and defended himself.

The verdict, the source added, “doesn’t clarify what type of injury is acceptable to inflict”. Instead, the source said, the acquittal was based on the specific circumstances that resulted in the injury.