Woman given non-custodial sentence for serious assault of boy (4)

DPP did not appeal sentence for 2010 crime, though it fell ‘markedly’ outside precedents

The Supreme Court also reaffirmed that ‘plea bargaining’ has no ‘place in our constitutional architecture’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The Supreme Court also reaffirmed that ‘plea bargaining’ has no ‘place in our constitutional architecture’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The State did not appeal a fully suspended sentence given to an abusive mother who left her four-year-old child requiring resuscitation and life-saving surgery, despite the sentence falling well outside the guidelines.

Details of the case are laid out in a Supreme Court determination, published this month, relating to the prosecution of the mother and her partner for the serious assault of the child in 2010.

In 2016, the mother (29) and her partner pleaded not guilty to assault causing harm, assault causing serious harm and child cruelty. The trial heard medical evidence the boy’s injuries were normally associated with high-impact traffic accidents and were likely caused by punching or kicking.

The couple changed their plea mid-trial to guilty to the sole count of causing serious harm after the judge took the highly unusual step of indicating they would likely receive a non-custodial sentence for doing so.

Judge Thomas Teehan, sitting at Tipperary Circuit Criminal Court, sentenced the mother to eight years which was fully suspended. Her partner received a sentence of 10 years with seven suspended.

Right to appeal

The Supreme Court noted the sentences fell outside the recommended range for such an offence and that the Director of Public Prosecutions indicated it reserved the right to appeal the leniency of any non-custodial sentence imposed by Judge Teehan.

“Neither sentence was appealed by the Director of Public Prosecutions under [section 2] of the Criminal Justice Act 1993 as unduly lenient, notwithstanding the sentences being outside any prior identified range,” the Supreme Court stated.

Surgery followed by intensive care was required to stop the internal bleeding

The indication of a non-custodial sentence for the mother “clashed markedly with the clearly available precedents in such serious assault cases,” wrote Mr Justice Peter Charleton.

The four-year-old boy had been brought to South Tipperary General Hospital in July 2010 with severe bruising and internal injuries and required resuscitation on arrival.

Surgery followed by intensive care was required to stop the internal bleeding. Doctors and nurses in the hospital were already familiar with the boy, having previously treated him for burn injuries.

As a result social workers were alerted and the mother and her partner were charged. The mother claimed the child suffered the injuries in a fall.

Garda interview

During the trial a video of the child’s Garda interview was played for the jury in line with standard procedure for young witnesses. This was to be followed by a live cross-examination of the boy by senior counsel for each accused.

However, Judge Teehan told the court he could “probably see my way to deal with the matter in a non-custodial way” if the accused “were to take a certain course” before cross-examination began. Conversely, in the absence of a guilty plea, he said it “would be difficult for either to avoid a custodial sentence”. The next day the mother and her partner changed their plea to guilty.

The woman then sought to change her plea back to not guilty and resume the trial. She said the judge’s comments about a non-custodial sentence meant she did not make her decision in a “free, independent and voluntary manner”.

There is nothing to suggest that Judge Teehan approached that application incorrectly

Judge Teehan refused to allow her to change her plea and the sentences stood.

The woman’s appeal of Judge Teehan’s refusal to allow a change of plea formed part of the case ruled on by the Supreme Court. The court found that, although Judge Teehan was wrong to indicate a suspended sentence mid-trial, he was permitted to refuse a change of plea.

Exceptional circumstances

Changes of plea should only be permitted in exceptional circumstances, the court said. “There is nothing to suggest that Judge Teehan approached that application incorrectly, much less that his approach was a fundamental denial of justice as guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The Supreme Court also reaffirmed that “plea bargaining”– the practice of judges and lawyers agreeing an appropriate sentence before a plea is entered – has no “place in our constitutional architecture”.

However, it said Judge Teehan’s intervention did not amount to plea bargaining. It noted an article by Mr Justice Peter Charleton and the late Paul Anthony McDermott SC that plea bargaining which occurs in the privacy of judges’ chambers is inconsistent with the constitutional requirement that justice be done in public.