A truck driver who was put on trial accused of the same murder three times and saw a conviction quashed by the Supreme Court has been jailed for 11 years for manslaughter.
Zoltan Almasi had "caused near instantaneous death" with a single and "savage blow" of a baseball bat after he saw his 20-year-old victim banging on his van.
Sentencing Almasi at the Central Criminal Court on Wednesday, Mr Justice Michael White said the killing of Joseph “Joe Joe” Dunne has had “a devastating impact” on his family and the “exhaustive process and long drawn out legal procedure” of three trials and two appeals had been “especially hard” on them.
“To lose your son and brother of 20 years of age in a violent, unnecessary act is heartbreaking but to go through the court hearings has been an unbearable trauma for the family,” said the judge.
Almasi (49), a Serbian with an address at Harbour View, Naas, Co Kildare was convicted of murdering Mr Dunne on May 16th, 2014 following a trial. The father-of-three appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeal on grounds that the trial judge should have allowed the defence of provocation to go to the jury. That court upheld his conviction but Almasi won a subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court, which quashed the conviction and ordered a retrial. His second and third trials resulted in jury disagreements.
Speaking outside the Criminal Courts of Justice today, Mr Dunne's father George Dunne said: "The last seven years have been hell for me and my family for being dragged through three trials. As of today [Almasi] has been sentenced to 11 years. The sentence is not going to bring back our son. Joe Joe was a kind and loving son and brother. He went out that night with his friends and never came home. What happened to Joe Joe will have an everlasting and traumatic effect on us as a family.
“His friends that night bravely gave evidence at the trial and we as a family would like to thank them. I would like to thank our legal team over the last seven years and the gardaí and everyone else along the way . . . Hopefully Joe Joe can rest in peace now.”
Following his last trial, which ended in July this year, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) accepted a plea of manslaughter, which Almasi had offered at his previous trials.
Prosecution counsel Caroline Biggs SC told Mr Justice White at last week’s sentence hearing that the DPP considered Almasi’s offence to be in the high culpability bracket for manslaughter, which would attract a headline sentence of 10-15 years.
Before delivering the sentence on Wednesday, the judge said the court was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that from the time Almasi started running at speed after Mr Dunne with a baseball bat, the accused had intended to cause him serious injury “which he did with a savage blow down on his head causing near instantaneous death”.
Passing sentence, the judge said it was immaterial that the jury had disagreed and could not reach a verdict on the murder charge and the court now had to sentence Almasi on the facts of the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Having regard to the gravity of the offence, the judge said the offence comes within the high culpability range of manslaughter and set a headline sentence of 15 years.
The aggravating factors in the case included that Almasi had armed himself with a weapon capable of causing serious injury and had “delivered a savage blow” to the deceased’s head, which caused the death of “a young man”.
In mitigation, the judge noted his guilty plea to manslaughter, that he was “an ordinary and hardworking man” who had come home after working a late shift, that prior to the banging on his van there was no evidence to suggest the accused had any intention of inflicting harm on anyone and that he had been an exemplary prisoner.
The accused has no previous convictions.
Almasi was sentenced to 11 years in prison, which was backdated to when he went into custody on May 16th, 2014.
Counsel for Almasi, James Kelly BL, asked the court to make a recommendation that the accused finish out his sentence in Wheatfield Prison, which Mr Justice White agreed to.
“I hope Mr Dunne’s family can now get some closure and reflect on the good times and memories of Joseph who was taken away from his family far too young,” concluded the judge.
At last week’s sentence hearing, the deceased’s family said they had been “dragged through three murder trials” and complained that the law favours criminals, allowing the “monster” who killed their son to “tear apart” his character.
At the hearing Sergeant Paul Maher told prosecution counsel Caroline Biggs SC that Almasi was in his home when he heard a bang and believed somebody had struck his van, which was parked outside. He ran out with a baseball bat which witnesses said he raised over his head as he chased Joseph Dunne. He struck the 20-year-old once on the head, fracturing his skull and causing blood to enter the cranial cavity.
In a statement to the court Joseph’s father George said the law was “all for the accused” and that Almasi’s defence had “taken Joe’s reputation” by accusing him of starting a fight with another man shortly before he died.
The deceased’s brother Richard told the court: “This was murder, nothing but murder. There is no doubt in any of our minds what it was.” He said his family was “dragged through three murder trials” and conducted themselves in an appropriate manner out of respect and love for “Joe Joe” despite the “slanderous” comments they were hearing.
Joseph’s mother Susie, father George, and brothers Richard and George junior all described Joseph as a caring, loving person who was adored by his family and friends. Almasi, they said, had left the family with no future and robbed Joseph of the promise that his life held. Shortly before his death, Joseph had been accepted on a criminology course and was “delighted with himself”, they said.
Barra McGrory QC for Almasi said his client has no previous convictions and there was no history of violence between himself and the deceased, who did not know one another. He said the incident was “spontaneous” and that when his client armed himself with a baseball bat he did not know what was facing him when he went outside.
He asked the judge to consider the background which included a number of incidents of criminality in the area including one in which people had climbed onto Almasi’s roof. Counsel said that when he heard someone striking his van, Almasi was “entitled to be apprehensive about what was happening.”
He also pointed out that the baseball bat was left in the house by a previous occupant and that his client’s use of the bat was not the same as someone who takes a gun or a knife.
“He grabbed what was available to him to protect himself and to scare people away,” counsel said.
Mr McGrory said his client accepts that he engaged in an unlawful act by swinging the bat, which was “unnecessary and reckless and had very severe consequences.” But, he said, Almasi has always maintained that he did not intend to cause serious harm.
He said his client was remorseful and had penned a letter of apology to the Dunne family. Counsel did not read out the letter as he said the Dunne family has “suffered enough and it wouldn’t do any good.”