A 23-year-old man has been sentenced to six and a half years for dangerous driving causing the death of a 42-year old cyclist near Killarney.
Shane Fitzgerald of Knockeen, Meelin, Newmarket, Co Cork, had denied the charge of dangerous driving causing the death of father-of-four Paudie O'Leary (42) at Scrahan Fada, Gneeveguilla, near Killarney on July 1st, 2012.
Judge Thomas E O’Donnell, handing down sentence said the collision “blew Mr O’Leary off the road,” so much so that his body and his bike were some distance behind a hedge.
The charge encompassed the speed and the condition of Shane Fitzgerald's grey Toyota Landcruiser – a vehicle which had been identified from debris at the accident scene but which had been "concealed" by him.
The vehicle has never been found despite extensive garda searches of sheds, farms and buildings.
Mr Fitzgerald had left the scene, and the day after left for the UK and subsequently Australia where he worked in the mines.
He was arrested in February of 2014 at Heathrow Airport – he had been in the UK and was returning to Australia but was spotted by an Irish citizen in Cambridge previous day.
The 15-day trial based overwhelmingly on circumstantial evidence lasted over four weeks.. There were 50 witnesses, including a member of the Australian federal police who interviewed Shane Fitzgerald in Australia.
Over three and a half hours of silent CCTV footage was shown to the jury, including footage showing Fitzgerald drinking heavily before getting into his vehicle on the night in question.
There was complex legal argument, ex jury, by Senior Defence Counsel Michael O’Higgins and Prosecuting counsel Tom Rice.
The jury of 11 returned a unanimous guilty verdict.
Judge O’Donnell described the victim impact statement given by Paud O’Leary’s widow, Margaret, as one of the most powerful he had ever heard.
The judge suspended 18 months of the sentence which is to be backdated to March and he disqualified him from driving for 10 years.
The sentencing hearing also heard of dramatic change on the part of the accused man.
Inspector Feargal Foley, of Anglesea St, Cork replying to Senior Counsel Michael O’Higgins, told of observing the accused outside the court room directly after the jury returned their verdict and seeing a huge change in the young man.
Whilst there was great relief and emotion in members of the extended O’Leary family he said that he noticed the accused in a corner and saw that his demeanour had totally changed.
“I think the penny dropped,” Insp Foley said.
Mr O’ Higgins then told the court that the accused, in a probation service report after the verdict, had acknowledged his involvement and his culpability in causing it.
“He accepts now the cause of the accident lay with him,” Mr O’Higgins said.
He also made clear there would be no appeal against the convictions.
His client – who the court heard was one of seven children had left school at 14 without sitting any State exam – was 20 at the time of the accident.
He was a hard worker, “a grafter”, but was immature for his age.
“There are 12-year-olds going on 20 and 20-year-olds going on 12. My client was of the latter. It was a circumstance where older and wiser counsel might have prevailed – that did not occur,” the senior counsel said.
It would be of higher value to everyone – but to himself above all, had he come forward sooner, Mr O’Higgins added.
The senior counsel then said he was instructed by his client to apologise on is behalf to Mrs O’ Leary and her extended family.
Judge O’Donnell also remarked on the demeanour of Shane Fitzgerald. He said the young man had seemed “disconnected” throughout the four weeks of the trial. However a Probation report handed to him on Thursday on the accused made for “very insightful reading”,
“Having read the contents of the Probation report, “maybe there are underlying reasons for that,” the judge said.
Complimenting the gardaí in the investigation, Judge O’Donnell said there was an exceptional amount of police work involved “locally, nationally and internationally”.
He paid particular tribute to Sgt David Leslie for the manner in which he “harvested” CCTV footage ( over 830 hours in 80 locations) .
In her victim impact statement Paud O’Leary’s widow, said she will never forget the cries of her children Ross (7), Paudie (9) Antoinette (“almost 12”) and Shannon (14) on July 1st.
“I told them Dad was found dead in a ditch.”
“They all depended on him so much. He was the head of the family, the authority figure in the home. On 1st July, all that changed.”
He loved his children very much and had pet names for all of them.
He had taken up cycling when Antoinette – a special needs child – was born “to honour not only Antoinette but every child born with a disability.”
“He had a saying : ‘I’m like a father and mother to ye.’ This was very true and to me he would say: ‘You’ll miss me when I’m gone – I have you spoilt.’
“Six months before his death he got the family farm where he had worked all his life in his own name. But his plans for the farm never came to pass. He never saw a pay cheque from it and he never got to buy a tractor and build sheds.
“I have lost my companion, my partner, the man I thought I would grow old with and the father of my four children.”
Nobody coming forward had added tremendously to the family’s pain, Mrs O’Leary said. And because he was more than eight hours in the ditch family were deprived of the comfort of something good coming from his death – he had an organ donor card, but the “small consolation” this would have given was not to be because of the length of time.
“We can all accept accidents do happen. We can never accept that at no point did anyone own up or admit to their involvement in the death of Paud.”