Court of Appeal, Dublin
A drunk and high car enthusiast whose dangerous driving caused the death of his best friend has avoided a prison term for a second time and had his overall suspended sentence reduced – even though the Court of Appeal ruled his original non-custodial sentence had been unduly lenient.
Phelim Coady (24) was in tears and with his head in his hands as he sat beside the body of Stephen Gleeson when gardai arrived at the scene of the crash in the townland of Garrykennedy, Co Tipperary.
The court heard that Mr Gleeson’s family had urged the trial judge not to jail Coady, an "extraordinarily compassionate approach" which the Court of Appeal said it took into account.
Mr Gleeson (21) had been thrown from the car’s rear window after it hit a bend and careered across a country road before overturning on June 30, 2019, at 5am.
The three other occupants of the 1995-registered Toyota Starlet, including Coady, were uninjured.
On October 7, 2020, Judge Patrick Meghan sentenced Coady, of Garrykennedy, Portroe, Nenagh, Co Tipperary, to two years and six months’ imprisonment, which the judge suspended entirely.
Coady had pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death, contrary to section 53 (1) of the Road Traffic Act, and driving a dangerously deficient vehicle contrary to sections 54 (1) and (4) of the same act.
Coady – who was also banned from driving for four years – had also admitted to being intoxicated and under the influence of alcohol and cannabis, and driving without insurance, at the time of the offence.
The Director Public Prosecutions (DPP) later appealed the sentence on the grounds it was unduly lenient.
Today, the Court of Appeal ruled that although it agreed with the DPP that the original headline sentence was too low and was quashing the sentence imposed by Judge Meghan, a non-custodial term would be “in the public interest”.
Delivering the judgment, Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy said it had been “a tragic case for all involved”, adding that Coady’s action on the night in question had been “highly reckless” and the consequences had been “devastating”.
She said the court found that the original headline sentence of 2.5 years had been too low, “taking into account the multiplicity of aggravating factors”.
Imposing a new headline sentence of four-and-a-half years, she said Coady was entitled to receive a two-and-half year discount.
The new two-year term, the judge added, would be suspended for three years.
Explaining the decision not to impose a custodial term, Ms Justice Kennedy said testimonials provided to the court described the respondent as a “gentle and well-meaning young man” and these indicated he was a “sensitive and thoughtful person”.
She said Coady was “deeply and genuinely” remorseful, had suffered anguish as a result of causing his friend’s death which was something that would live with him for the rest of his life.
Describing him as a “mentally fragile first-time offender”, Ms Justice Kennedy said the evidence showed that “any period of incarceration would be damaging to the appellant’s mental health and would lessen his ability to once again become a positive contributor to his community and society”.
A visibly emotional Coady declined to comment as he left court.
At a Court of Appeal hearing last month (October 18), Dylan Redmond BL, for the DPP, told Mr Justice John Edwards, presiding, that Judge Meghan had failed had to give sufficient weight to aggravating factors and placed “excessive weight to matters urged upon him in mitigation”.
However, Mr Redmond did acknowledge that the judge had been placed in “a difficult position” after Mr Gleeson’s family urged him not to jail the accused.
“He had been remarkably compassionate,” Mr Redmond noted.
William O’Brien BL, for Coady, told the three-court judge that the facts of the case were “highly unusual”.
Mr O’Brien said his client had been with a group of friends who had met up for a reunion at a yard close to the scene of the crash.
The car his client had been driving at the time of the tragic accident had previously been owned by Mr Gleeson, counsel explained.
Coady and Mr Gleeson both shared a love of cars and the defendant, Mr O’Brien said, had been keen to demonstrate to his friend the amount of work he had done to the vehicle and that was why the group decided to drive to a nearby village.
“The car couldn’t get out a low gear and the speed did not get higher than 30-40km/h during the three-mile round-trip,” counsel added.
The vehicle did not have any rear seats and, given its dilapidated condition, Mr O’Brien said it was not surprising it had been involved in a road accident.
But the fact that three of the occupants walked away from the car uninjured suggested there was “an element of freak fatality” about the crash.
His client, Mr O’Brien continued, was “essentially a good man” who possessed a “good moral compass”.
When gardai arrived at the scene, Coady was bashing himself on both sides of his head and saying, ‘I have killed my best friend’, Mr O’Brien added.
Coady – who graduated with a degree in Automobile Engineering days before the accident – later sought counselling to help him come to terms with events, Mr O’Brien said.
“His remorse is genuine, and he has been left devastated,” he added.
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