Talented runner stabbed to death by friend spent youth protecting siblings, court hears

Christopher McGrath had previously been in an intimate relationship with accused

 Noel Lenihan (67), of Mervue, Galway city, leaving court on Monday. Photograph: Collins Courts

Noel Lenihan (67), of Mervue, Galway city, leaving court on Monday. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

A talented runner who was stabbed to death by a family friend had spent his youth protecting his younger siblings, the Central Criminal Court has heard.

Christopher McGrath’s (38) family wept in court on Monday as his sisters remembered how he had protected them from their mother as he “took the brunt” of her “fierce temper”. Mr McGrath’s killer, Noel Lenihan (67) from Mervue in Galway was charged with murder but pleaded guilty earlier this year to his manslaughter on March 12th, 2017 at Lenihan’s home. The plea was accepted by the Director of Public Prosecutions and Justice Michael White on Monday heard evidence ahead of sentencing.

The court heard that Mr McGrath had previously been in an intimate relationship with his killer; a martial arts instructor.

The court also heard that Mr McGrath made for Lenihan’s house on the night of his death after he could not get a room at a homeless shelter. The deceased’s sister Jessica McGrath told Mr Justice White that her mother was mentally unstable and “aimed her fierce temper at her children”. Mr McGrath had taken on the responsibility of parenting from a young age and always looked out for his younger siblings, she said. “As a child and a teenager his job was to protect us.”

She said she is traumatised by his death and particularly that it was at the hands of a man who was considered a family friend. She said she remembered Lenihan coming to the house when she was a child and handing out sweets. As children they “latched onto any kindness that was shown” and they loved his visits. Mr McGrath’s half-sister Sylvia O’Connor said Lenihan had “built a bond” with her from when she was very young. He taught her to play card games, to draw and colour. As a child she would look forward to his visits every week and in her teens they would meet every Thursday. “He was there for me in hard times. I thought he loved me, ” she said. “How could a man I loved like an uncle betray our family?”

Ms O’Connor also remembered Mr McGrath looking out for her and protecting her as a child. While he was “damaged” from his own childhood, from “things that shouldn’t have happened”, he was always trying to better himself, she said. She also remembered him as a “brilliant athlete” who won multiple medals for cross-country running. Earlier, Det Insp Michael Coppinger told prosecuting counsel Conor Devally SC that in 2017 Lenihan, who worked as a martial arts instructor, lived at Mervue in Galway with his brother Thomas. On March 12th, at some time after 4am, Galway emergency services received a call in which the accused man said he had stabbed Mr McGrath “in fear” after Mr McGrath came in through the back door of his house and threatened him. When gardaí arrived they found Mr McGrath in Lenihan’s home, lying in a pool of blood and showing no signs of life.

Lenihan and his brother had gone to a neighbour’s house to get help. When he spoke to gardaí the accused again said he had stabbed Mr McGrath in fear having been awoken in the middle of the night. He produced a steak knife from his pocket which he placed on the ground for gardaí. Piecing together the movements of the accused and deceased prior to the stabbing, gardaí found CCTV footage showing Lenihan in a hotel in Galway on the evening of March 12th, 2017.

Mr McGrath was outside and from the CCTV, gardaí could see Mr Lenihan may have brought a pint out to Mr McGrath on at least one occasion. Insp Coppinger explained that the deceased may, at that time, have been homeless and had a history of difficulties with drugs and alcohol. He said he would sometimes stay at the accused man’s house and the two had previously had an intimate relationship. After leaving the area near the hotel, Mr McGrath was seen on CCTV wandering the streets of Galway city. He tried to get into a homeless shelter but they didn’t have a room for him and he was last seen walking in the direction of Lenihan’s home.

Gardaí pieced together evidence showing that Mr McGrath scaled a wall to the back of the house and got in through a back door. What happened during the fatal stabbing, Insp Coppinger said, can only be gleaned from what Mr Lenihan told gardaí and from the evidence of acting State pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan. Lenihan, the witness said, had told gardaí that he awoke to find Mr McGrath had come in through the back door with his top off. He told gardaí he was wary of Mr McGrath but also fond of him. Their relationship was volatile, he said. He described to gardaí that Mr McGrath struck him and there was a struggle in which Lenihan lost his footing. He said Mr McGrath got on top of him and put him in a “scarf hold”, a judo hold that Lenihan had previously taught him.

Lenihan said the deceased told him he was going to choke him and he felt his life was in danger. In the struggle Lenihan said he found a knife that had been missing for some months. It was underneath an arm chair. He managed to free himself and said he remembered using the knife in a “get off me” motion while he still had his back to Mr McGrath. He was then shown Dr Mulligan’s evidence that Mr McGrath had suffered five knife wounds, including a fatal wound to the heart that was consistent with a “direct frontal” movement rather than a backwards one.

While Lenihan said he didn’t remember inflicting these wounds he accepted the pathologist’s evidence and his responsibility. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds that he had acted in self-defence but used excessive force.

Since being charged in relation to Mr McGrath’s death, Insp Coppinger said Lenihan’s mental and physical health had deteriorated. Giollaiosa O’Lideadha SC for Lenihan said his client had written an apology to his victim’s family. In it he spoke of Mr McGrath’s family as being like a second family to him. Lenihan wrote: “It breaks my heart to think I have devastated the whole family by taking Christopher away.” He said he is aware of the damage he caused to their lives and “I live with and will continue to live with the horror of this.” Mr O’Lideadha asked Justice White to consider his client’s age, his ill-health, previous good character, and his remorse when sentencing. He said the penalty should be somewhere in the lower range for such offences.

Justice White said he wants to put Mr McGrath at the centre of the sentence hearing. He said: “He had a difficult life growing up but it is quite clear from his sister and his step-sister that he was able to protect his younger siblings and was a comfort to them.” He had his own difficulties in later life but was a “very special human being” who took the brunt of the suffering and kept it away from his siblings, Mr Justice White said. Mr Justice White said he wants time to consider all matters and put sentencing back to November 25th.