A man who was wearing blood-stained clothes and carrying a knife when he walked into a garda station and admitted to stabbing a fisherman 40 times has been found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter by a Central Criminal Court jury.
The panel of eight men and four women unanimously accepted the defence case that Darren Houlden had "lost control and snapped" when he stabbed Stephen "Apples" Kavanagh in a "frenzied attack". It was the defence contention that "fear" was at "the heart of the case" and the accused was not only afraid for "his own skin" but that the victim had also threatened his family, which had "set him off".
Defence counsel Brendan Grehan SC with Edmund Sweetman BL, instructed by Padraig Hyland Solicitors, asked for a verdict of manslaughter on the basis of the partial defence of provocation, which can reduce an intentional killing from murder to manslaughter. Mr Grehan said provocation was an act done by the deceased to an accused, which would cause a reasonable person "a sudden and temporary loss of self-control" that meant he was no longer master of his own mind and compel him to act in a way that he would not ordinarily act.
Evidence was given that Houlden drove to Arklow Garda Station covered in blood at around 00.35am on the morning of May 6th following a weekend of smoking crack cocaine and taking a medley of drugs with the victim and his girlfriend. The accused handed a "bloodied knife" to the member-in-charge at the hatch of the public office and told him: "It's my fault. I attacked him. It's all on me."
Houlden told gardaí in his interviews that Mr Kavanagh was angry when he discovered that his cocaine was missing and made a phone call to someone saying: "There is trouble down here, your stuff has been taken, get bodies down here."
The accused told detectives that he begged Mr Kavanagh not to make a second phone call after the victim threatened him that “gangsters” would bring him to “the woods” and shoot him over the missing cocaine.
Whilst Mr Kavanagh was making the second call on the upstairs landing, Houlden said he was “like a lunatic” and “went into a rage” as he “went for” the deceased’s brain with the knife.
Mr Kavanagh's girlfriend Rachel Kearney gave evidence that she saw the accused "slaughtering" and "overkilling" her boyfriend. The witness said that Houlden was on top of her partner and had his knees on his back as he stabbed the victim.
The juror rejected the State’s case that Houlden was not “provoked” and no loss of control was evident by how the defendant had “weighed up his options” and “reasoned things out in his mind” before attacking Mr Kavanagh. In his closing speech, prosecution counsel John Fitzgerald SC remarked that the missing cocaine was later found without any great difficulty by gardaí in a bookcase in the accused’s bedroom, which the barrister said was very hard to reconcile with the “life and death situation” presented by the accused.
Houlden (44), with an address at The Crescent, Meadowvale, Arklow, Co Wicklow had pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to the manslaughter of Mr Kavanagh (37) at the same location in the early hours of May 6th, 2019. However, his plea was rejected by the State.
Former Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis testified that Mr Kavanagh died after receiving "around 40 knife wounds" to the head, neck and face, which included the slicing of the right jugular vein and the thyroid artery, which cut the pharynx in the victim's throat.
The 12 jurors found Houlden not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter by unanimous verdict after three hours and 16 minutes considering their verdict.
Following Friday's verdict, Ms Justice Carmel Stewart thanked the jury for the attention they had given the case. "You serve a very important function in our criminal justice system and I thank you again," she added.
Ms Justice Stewart exempted them from jury service for the next five years.
The judge expressed her condolences to the Kavanagh family saying: “The court appreciates the difficulty visited upon you and it can’t have been easy to sit through the evidence during the course of the trial.”
Ms Justice Stewart adjourned sentencing until February 1 and remanded Houlden in custody until that date, when a victim impact statement will be before the court. The judge also directed a probation report.
The trial heard that Mr Kavanagh’s phone records showed that he made a call to his friend Rory “Tar” Kavanagh at 10.24pm on May 5th. Under cross-examination, Mr Kavanagh agreed with Mr Grehan that the deceased man had asked him to go to the accused’s house in Meadowvale that night. However, the witness denied that the victim had asked him to come to Meadowvale because some of his crack cocaine had gone missing and he wanted help with the problem.
The court also heard that an unsuccessful call, lasting one second, was made from Mr Kavanagh's phone to another friend, Jason Farrell, at 00.18 on the morning of May 6th.
At the outset of the trial, Rachel Kearney testified that on May 4th she went to the accused's house with her boyfriend Stephen Kavanagh, whom she had been in a relationship with for a few weeks. Ms Kearney said the three of them spent the night smoking crack cocaine from a pipe in Houlden's bedroom.
The witness said that the accused had smoked heroin in the house that weekend and once he was “getting plenty of drugs and smoking whatever, everything was alright”.
Ms Kearney said her boyfriend noticed that his crack cocaine was missing when they were getting ready to leave Houlden’s house on the evening of May 5. She said Mr Kavanagh had hid the drugs behind the door in Houlden’s room. “When [Mr Kavanagh] noticed it was gone, there was arguing going on back and forwards. Stephen was saying where is my drugs and Darren was saying he didn’t take it but he did have them,” she continued.
The witness said her boyfriend was angry that he had been “robbed” by the accused and said he was going to make a phone call to a friend.
Ms Kearney said that when she later went to the top of the stairs she saw the accused stabbing Mr Kavanagh. The witness told Mr Fitzgerald that her boyfriend was face down on the floor and the accused had his two knees on his back as he stabbed him. "He was slaughtering him, over-killing him," she said.
The witness explained that her boyfriend said to her “will you help me, he is going to kill me” before she grabbed Houlden by the arm. “I wasn’t strong enough to stop him. I said please stop you are killing him and he [Houlden] answered me calmly saying ‘Ok, I will’,” she said. However, Ms Kearney said the accused then inflicted two final stab wounds to Mr Kavanagh’s neck and head. The witness said she thought she would be killed next so she grabbed a mobile phone and rang 999.
In cross-examination, Ms Kearney told defence counsel Mr Grehan that she had heard her boyfriend say he was going to make a phone call but did not see or hear him make any phone calls. Mr Grehan suggested to the witness that his client had attacked her boyfriend to stop him from making a phone call “to get people to come up to the house to shoot Darren”.
“No, that’s all lies,” she said.
Garda Dean Bolger said he received a call from the control unit at around 00.30 on May 6th informing him that there had been a stabbing in Meadowvale. The witness said he found a male with a faint pulse, lying on his right hand side in one of the bedrooms of the house. Gda Bolger said he recognised that it was Stephen Kavanagh when he rolled the man over onto the flat of his back. Gda Bolger observed a large laceration to the back of the victim's head as well as a large number of cuts to his neck and forearms.
Paramedic Laura Hogan testified that Mr Kavanagh arrived at St Vincent's Hospital at 2am and died at 2.35am in the early hours of May 6th.
Garda Patrick Phelan gave evidence that he was the member in charge at Arklow Garda Station in the early hours of May 6th, when Houlden arrived at the hatch of the public office at 00.35.
Gda Phelan said Houlden, who was covered in blood, told him that he had been accused of stealing cocaine at his house and handed him "a bloodied knife". Reading from his notes, Gda Phelan said that Houlden told him at the desk: "I attacked him with a knife. Neck, head and ears. He had a scissors. It's my fault. I attacked him. It's all on me. Face, neck and back. I don't effing know. I couldn't find my phone to call an ambulance. I drove down here in my car."
Gda Phelan said that Houlden had “blood smeared on his face, arms and all of his clothing” and was “distressed and agitated”. CCTV footage was shown to the jury of Houlden entering the public area of the station with the knife, which has a 10.5cm blade, in his right hand.
Former Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis gave evidence that Mr Kavanagh died after receiving “a multiplicity” of “around 40” stab and slash wounds. He said that Mr Kavanagh died of “multiple stab wounds targeting the head, neck and face”, which included a severed right jugular vein, thyroid artery, cut voice box, fractured cheekbone and injuries to his ears.
Dr Curtis said the two most serious injuries were the slicing of the right jugular vein, and the thyroid artery, which cut the pharynx in the throat. The witness said that these wounds caused blood to enter Mr Kavanagh’s airwaves and “multiple defence wounds” were found on both his arms. A toxicology report recorded that cocaine, morphine, methadone and cannabinoids were found in the deceased’s system.
Det Gda Liam Flynn gave evidence that he arrested the accused man in the custody area of Arklow Garda Station and in reply to the caution, Houlden said: "You should arrest me for attempted murder. I have never been so angry or so scared. I was doing coke with him and his girlfriend. I haven't done coke in four or five years, I enjoyed myself."
The accused man said Mr Kavanagh told him that he was going to ring someone and named a man. “I heard him talking to someone. Then we started to search the house everywhere, he kept saying we are going to get shot, we are going to get brought up the mountains and shot because of this. He kept saying that they will come after you and your family,” said Houlden.
The defendant said he went to the kitchen in his house and got a knife. “I kept it down by my side. Then I just started stabbing him in the neck, in the face, in the head, in the back. I must have stabbed him at least seven times. He was saying as I was stabbing him ‘I think she took it not you’. I know him, he wasn’t talking shit. I know he could have me shot,” he said.
Houlden continued: “Stephen is his first name, he’s a fisherman. I don’t trust him. Why did he do it. I only stabbed him to stop him making that second call otherwise the lads with the guns were on the way and we will be shot.”
In his interviews, Houlden told detectives that he “went for” the deceased’s brain with a knife after he said the victim threatened him that “gangsters” would bring him “up to the woods” and shoot him over the missing cocaine.
“I was so terrified in my own house. I tried everything to avoid this but he kept pushing it. I know this fella. I know he was connected. I know he was able to get drugs and a gun and who he owed money to; big guys in the city. I am so ashamed of what I done [sic],” he said.
Gardaí asked the accused what had prompted him to take the knife out of his pocket. He replied: “To make sure he didn’t make that phone call so that those people don’t come to my house. Even when I had knife in my hand I was thinking to myself, I can’t do this. The devil had taken me over for those two minutes [sic]”.
Sgt Jenny Carrig gave evidence that she found two bags of cocaine at the edge of a bookcase in the accused's bedroom. In cross-examination, the witness told Mr Grehan that the bags would not have been "obvious to the eye initially" and one would have had to look for them. The court heard that the two bags of cocaine were valued at €591.50.
Gda David Hamlin testified that he examined the deceased's phone and it showed that he had made a call to Rory "Tar" Kavanagh at 10.24pm on May 5th. The witness also said that an unsuccessful call, lasting one second, was made from the deceased's phone to Jason Farrell at 00.18 on the morning of May 6th.
Rory “Tar” Kavanagh testified that he knew the deceased since they were teenagers and Mr Kavanagh rang him at 10.30pm on the night of May 5th. Under cross-examination, Mr Kavanagh agreed with Mr Grehan that the deceased had asked him to go to Houlden’s house in Meadowvale that night and said he was “now disgusted” that he had not gone.
Mr Grehan put it to the witness that the deceased had asked him to come up to Meadowvale that night because he [Mr Kavanagh] had loads of crack cocaine, some went missing and he wanted help with the problem. “Where the f**k did you get that from, [that] he had ‘loads of crack cocaine’,” replied Rory “Tar” Kavanagh.
The lawyer asked the witness if he was denying this suggestion. “I’m completely denying that. He wasn’t looking for someone to come up because anything went missing,” he replied.