Belfast Crown Court: Man with schizophrenia given indeterminate custodial sentence for manslaughter

Crown Court
Crown Court

A man who killed his friend by stabbing him 33 times in a “frenzied and sustained attack” has been given an indeterminate custodial sentence after pleading guilty to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility.

Specifying that a tariff of eight years must be served before the man’s release could be considered by the Parole Commissioners, Mr Justice Adrian Colton emphasised the importance of ensuring the protection of the public given the man’s assessment of being a significant risk to others.


On Saturday 5 November 2016, James Devine killed his friend James Hughes in his flat in Divis Tower. The post mortem revealed that the deceased suffered a total of 33 stab wounds to his neck, chest and abdomen, with wounds consistent with defensive action. The court heard that Mr Devine had been seen in Divis tower on the morning Sunday 6 November 2016, and appeared to be on drugs. 

When Mr Devine arrived at his mother’s house in Ballymoney the day after killing Mr Hughes, he was carrying cash totalling £6,080 which he claimed was his savings. He told his mother and sister that he had stabbed the deceased, that the deceased was begging for his life but he just could not stop and that he wanted to hand himself in. 

During police interviews carried out over the next two days, Mr Devine gave a gave a prepared statement saying that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and his memory from Friday 4 November until his arrest was “not great”.  He said that he only had vague memories of drinking with friends, remembered nothing of the killing, and did not remember admitting the crime to his family.

DNA analysis revealed DNA from blood on Mr Devine’s watchstrap and clothing  matched that of the deceased, and he was charged with murder contrary to common law and theft contrary to s.1 of the Theft Act (NI) 1969

Diminished responsibility

Mr Devine was initially detained at HMP Maghaberry, before being transferred on a hospital order to the Shannon Clinic, Knockbracken Healthcare Park, Belfast. While there was initial concern about his fitness to plead, after intensive medical and nursing care he was subsequently reassessed as being fit to plead and pleaded not guilty at arraignment on 9 March 2018. 

Counsel for Mr Devine indicated that he fully accepted that he had committed the act of killing the deceased and the only issue that remained outstanding was whether he met the test for the defence of diminished responsibility. Further medical evidence was obtained and Mr Devine applied to be re-arraigned. 

On 8 June 2018, Mr Devine pleaded guilty to the offence of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility.  That plea was accepted by the prosecution and the remaining Count of theft contrary to s.1 of the Theft Act (NI) 1969 was “left on the books”.

Medical reports from two consultant psychiatrists did not dispute that Mr Devine met the statutory test for diminished responsibility. Mr Devine had been assessed as having a longstanding diagnosis of schizophrenia dating from 2006, a recorded diagnosis of personality disorder, and opiate and alcohol dependencies. 

Mr Justice Colton considered that the plea to manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility was properly accepted by the prosecution as Mr Devine’s condition at the time of the killing would have substantially impaired his ability to form a rational judgement and to exercise self-control.

Hospital order not appropriate

The first issue for the court to determine, given Mr Devine’s medical condition, was whether or not a hospital order, with or without restrictions, under Articles 44 and 47 of the Mental Health (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 would be the most suitable means of dealing with Mr Devine and protecting the public from serious harm.

Both consultant psychiatrists considered that this would not be an appropriate disposal. 

Mr Justice Colton considered that while Mr Devine met the first test in Article 41 of the Mental Health (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 (i.e. suffering from mental illness or severe mental impairment of a nature or degree which warrants his detention in hospital for medical treatment), he did not meet the second condition required for a hospital order namely that “the court must be of the opinion, having regard to all the circumstances, including the nature of the offence and the character antecedents of the defendant and to the other available methods for dealing with him, the most suitable means of dealing with the case is by means of a hospital order”. 

Satisfied that Mr Devine would receive the appropriate and necessary treatment if a custodial sentence were to be imposed, Justice Colton concluded that the medical evidence, together with the requirements of appropriate punishment and protection of the public pointed towards a custodial sentence rather than a hospital order.

Indeterminate custodial sentence

A pre-sentence report referred to Mr Devine’s traumatic upbringing, his poor mental health since childhood, and his 56 previous convictions dating from 1992. The report assessed the defendant as posing a significant risk of serious harm to others, given the substantial number of historical risk factors.

Emphasising the importance of ensuring the protection of the public, Mr Justice Colton said that the imposition of an indeterminate custodial sentence under the Criminal Justice (NI) Order 2008 would be sufficient to provide appropriate retribution and deterrence in respect of this manslaughter conviction and to provide protection to the public in the future.

Considering the length of the minimum term to impose, Justice Colton emphasised the view that Mr Devine’s culpability was ‘more than minimal’, and that the offence was ‘truly shocking’ involving ‘a gratuitous frenzied and sustained attack with the use of knives’. Furthermore, it was also important to consider that Mr Devine had ‘a relevant and significant criminal record for crimes of violence’.

Justice Colton said that Mr Devine’s remorse and his traumatic upbringing represented very minimal mitigating factors, and that any reduction in sentence was as a result of his diminished responsibility and is plea of guilty. Considering all of the aggravating and mitigating factors, and emphasising that it would be necessary for the Parole Commissioners to assess whether or not Mr Devine could be safely released, Justice Colton considered a tariff of 8 years to be appropriate in all the circumstances.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2019

Other judgments by Mr Justice Adrian Colton