A law graduate has been sentenced for five years in prison with 18 months suspended for setting fire to a medical student in a Galway nightclub three years ago.
Matthew Sheridan (24), from Cabinteely, Dublin, who was a second year medical student at NUIG at the time, was attending a Halloween fancy dress party at Halo nightclub at Upper Abbeygate Street, Galway on October 31st, 2012.
Brian Keane(23), from Grange, Templemore Road, Thurles, came up behind him on the dance floor, took out his lighter and set fire to Mr Sheridan’s costume for no apparent reason.
Mr Sheridan’s home-made sheep costume, which he had made by using highly flammable glue and cotton wool, burst into flames. He was engulfed in flames and had to be placed in an induced coma for weeks afterwards in hospital, where he was in a critical condition, having suffered over 75 per cent burns to his body.
Mr Sheridan was taken to Galway Regional Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery. Within hours he was transferred to St James’s Hospital in Dublin to undergo more treatment including a number of skin grafts. Mr Sheridan spent four months in St James’s and subsequently travelled to a specialist burns unit in France, for further treatment.
Keane pleaded guilty at Galway Circuit Criminal Court moments before his trial was due to begin last February to intentionally or recklessly causing serious bodily harm to Mr Sheridan. Sentence was adjourned for the preparation of reports.
Garda Sean McHugh gave evidence the incident was captured on CCTV at 12.19am. on November 1st, 2012, when the accused, who was dressed in a Batman costume, came up behind the victim and set his costume alight.
Prosecuting barrister Conor Fahy said people had to use their own jumpers and water to put the flames out.
The victim, he said, was writhing in agony and he screamed in pain all the way to hospital. He had to be placed in an induced coma for a long period of time.
Garda McHugh said Keane turned on his heels and left the nightclub immediately. He went to gardaí the next day though on the advice of a friend and identified himself as the male with the lighter on the CCTV.
He did not accept he had put the lighter to the costume intentionally.
Gardaí had to wait until May 2013 to interview Mr Sheridan due to his injuries and treatments and after speaking to him, they arrested Keane the following October.
During his second interview, Keane accepted the injuries were caused by him. He claimed it was a prank that went wrong and that he had not intended to cause harm to anybody. He did not know the victim prior to this. He was told Mr Sheridan had suffered serious burns and had been at serious risk of dying or disfigurement for some time. The court heard the victim was discharged from St James’s Hospital on February 1st, 2013 but continues to receive treatment.
Mr Sheridan was a second-year medical student at the time, but had to forego his studies for over a year. He has since resumed and is now in fourth year.
Garda McHugh said the accused was a third year student at NUIG at the time, studying corporate law. He had gone on to do his LLB in UCC and had just finished a Masters in Law in Trinity. Testimonials from all colleges were handed into court.
Mr Fahy said the nightclub’s CCTV showed Keane igniting Mr Sheridan’s sheep costume from behind. “And Mr Keane has eventually accepted the flame came from his lighter and it was intentional,” Mr Fahy said.
Mr Sheridan read out his own victim impact statement in court. It detailed the gruelling journey he has been on since that night.
Keane, who sat facing his victim, never made eye contact with Mr Sheridan.
At Mr Fahy’s request, Mr Sheridan stood up in the witness box and showed his burnt and disfigured hands to Judge Rory McCabe. He sustained the injuries to his hands while trying to pull the burning costume from his body. He said he had always dreamed of being a paediatric surgeon, but as part of the little finger on his right hand had fused with his ring finger and had to be partially amputated, he no longer knew if he would ever realise that dream.
He said the attack was totally unprovoked and he could not understand the incomprehensible cruelty of his attacker. He criticised the judicial system for delaying justice in his case but thanked the gardai who had helped him.
He said he had never received an apology from Keane and he was waiting for so long to know if there would be a trial or not. “I was taunted by the knowledge that he was leading a healthy life while I was suffering. I was the victim of a faceless, nameless person I did not know.
“I was missing 70 per cent of my skin and I underwent extensive emergency surgeries. Metal rods were put though my fingers. The pain and anguish of not being able to do ordinary things was unbearable. This attack was unprovoked and sinister and incredibly malevolent.
“I was tortured because he wanted me to be so. He changed my life forever.
“He literally burnt me to the bone,” Mr Sheridan read.
“My fingers burned off. Why could he not just have hit me or kicked me or broken a glass over my head or shot me or stabbed me - anything but fire.
“You snuck up behind me in a dark room and then left me to burn to death,” Mr Sheridan said to his attacker.
He said he had gone in an instant from being a happy, healthy and fit person who was looking forward to a life that he loved, to a person who was engulfed in flames and fighting for his life.
“I thought I was dying. I begged for the pain to end. The stench of burning flesh overpowered me. I thought I might be blinded. The paramedics wrapped me in cling film and I begged them for pain relief and to put me to sleep.
“I was out celebrating finishing my exams. I had plans, but you found me. Who are you to jeopardise my plans? But my plans to be a paediatric surgeon have been put in jeopardy by you,” Mr Sheridan said to his attacker.
He said there had been no attempt at an apology in the intervening years and no offer of compensation. “You immediately turned and walked away that night and you have been doing it ever since. Where were you when I got my medical bills from France?
“You took my health, my peace of mind, my job, my hobbies, my fitness. You stole them all from me.
“Who are you to inflict such misery just because I was an easy target. I have persistent nightmares. You have caused me more pain that you can imagine. It was not an accident. It was done deliberately to me. It was an opportunistic assault,” Mr Sheridan said.
Mr Fahy said the DPP had directed the offence be placed at the top end of the scale of gravity and she was putting it in the category which merited a sentence of between seven and a half to 12 years.
Bernard Madden SC, defending, said his client had wanted to write a letter of apology to Mr Sheridan after the incident but had been advised by his solicitor at the time not to do so. He said his client had written a letter of apology now and he read it to the court on Keane’s behalf.
In it, Keane expressed his remorse for his actions on the night which had changed Mr Sheridan’s life. He said he had not intended to hurt him and he didn’t foresee the consequences of his actions. He said he had read the medical reports and had gained an insight into Mr Sheridan’s pain and suffering. He knew he had to have skin grafts and would have to have more in the future. He said he was very happy to hear he had returned to his medical studies and he hoped he would make a fantastic doctor.
“I wish you the best. The level of hurt and shame I feel is beyond words,” Keane’s letter read. He ended by saying he hoped his letter of apology would help bring some degree of closure and he was hopeful for him in the future. “I hope you continue to live your life. I really just want to say that I am really sorry for everything and I wish you the best in the future,” he said.
Mr Madden said his client was of good character and his risk of reoffending was low. “This was an impulsive, momentary loss of control by an otherwise law-abiding man who, in his rational state would not have conceived of this situation arising. It’s a tragedy for the victim and for the defendant,” Mr Madden said.
He said Keane accepted responsibility for what he did and there had been no intention in his mind to cause harm to Mr Sheridan at the time.
Mr Madden said the probation and psychological reports on his client which had been handed into court concurred he would be affected by his actions for a long time. The probation report pointed out that his intoxicated state on the night had impaired his judgement, Mr Madden added.
“He didn’t think of the consequences when he flicked his lighter close to the victim’s costume,” Mr Madden said.
Keane, the court was told is now on antidepressants and is seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
Judge McCabe said many people’s lives were changed forever in an instant. The accused, in a mindless and alcohol-fuelled act of madness changed the life of another person forever.
For the victim, the burden he continues to carry is evident, Judge McCabe said. The offence, he said, carried a maximum life sentence. These were very grave injuries. A real factor in the mind of the victim, he said, was the absence of remorse and the immediate reaction of the accused to avoid conviction.
“He took a lighter, lit it and put it to the clothing of the victim. If you need a definition or recklessness, you have it there,” Judge McCabe observed. “This is a case which involves two young men embarking on professional careers in law and in medicine. Both of them of impeccable character, both of endless potential and both of their lives changed forever now due to a drunken reckless act.”
Accepting the attack was not premeditated and the accused had no previous convictions and had pleaded guilty, Judge McCabe said the appropriate sentence was five years. Following further submissions from Mr Madden, the judge suspended the final 18 months of the five-year sentence for 18 months.