Tullamore case highlights big flaw in criminal insanity law

Dariusz Alchimionek was convicted based on ‘perverse’ jury verdict, against judge’s advice

Dariusz Alchimionek leaving Tullamore Circuit Court after his sentencing. Photograph: James Flynn/APX

Dariusz Alchimionek leaving Tullamore Circuit Court after his sentencing. Photograph: James Flynn/APX

 

When a jury found Dariusz Alchimionek (44) guilty of the manslaughter of 19-year-old John Gorman in 2017, the victim’s family cheered while the lawyers for both sides sat in stunned silence.

In a highly emotive trial, during which the family sat holding photographs of the deceased, the jury was told by the prosecution, the defence and the judge that Alchimionek was legally insane when he ran over and killed Mr Gorman and injured his brother Adam.

Before sending them away to deliberate, Judge Keenan Johnson told jurors they “were obliged to acquit” the Polish national because of the uncontested psychiatric evidence in the case.

When the jury returned with a guilty verdict in Tullamore Circuit Court, there was nothing the judge could do.

Judge Johnson was compelled to sentence Alchimionek to a lengthy prison term but not before commenting that “the jury’s verdict flew in the face of the expert medical evidence and as such is difficult to accept”.

He added that it was “one of the most difficult judgments I have had to deliver in my time on the bench”.

Under the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006, those pleading not guilty by reason of insanity must go before a jury even if evidence of their legal insanity is uncontroverted.

Such cases are invariably very short. A garda outlines the offence and psychiatrists for both sides give evidence that the accused was not legally responsible for their actions.

The judge tells the jury there is only one logical verdict – not guilty by reason of insanity – and, usually within an hour, the jury returns with that verdict. During his time, the late Mr Justice Paul Carney wouldn’t even let the jury leave the room to deliberate.

The accused is then usually remanded to the secure Central Mental Hospital, where they can remain for many years; often longer than they would have spent in prison.

‘Perverse’ verdict

For whatever reason, that is not what happened in the Alchimionek case. Yesterday, the Court of Appeal said it was “compelled” to quash the jury verdict as perverse.

The significance of this should not be underestimated; it is extremely rare for the appeal court to second-guess a jury verdict. It is far more likely to rule some evidence should not have been admitted or the judge’s instructions were wrong.

The ruling exposes a fundamental contradiction in the system. On the face of it, jurors are free to disregard judges’ advice and expert evidence, even when it is uncontested. But, at least according to yesterday’s ruling, such a verdict would be “perverse”.

“This was always going to happen sooner or later with these cases,” one legal source with knowledge of the case remarked.

They suggested an amendment to the 2006 Act should be introduced that would allow trial judges to instruct rather than advise juries to return a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, thereby removing any discretion from the jurors and preventing “perverse” verdicts that fly in the face of the evidence.

Such a move would at least ensure closure for families such as the Gormans and adequate treatment for mentally ill defendants such as Alchimionek.