Belfast Crown Court: Two of eight people charged with causing the death of Christopher Meli given custodial sentences



Crown Court
Crown Court

Two of eight people who pleaded guilty to offences linked to the death of a 20-year-old man in 2015 have been given custodial sentences in Belfast Crown Court.

Two of the defendants pleaded guilty to manslaughter, for which they received sentences of nine years and five years’ imprisonment. Six of the defendants pleaded guilty to offences of affray and ABH in relation to attacks on Mr Meli’s friends, for which they received community orders and probation orders.

Explaining that the evidence was insufficient to establish a charge of murder against any of the defendants, Mr Justice Adrian Colton said there was no sentence which could “cure the tragic loss suffered by Christopher’s family”.

Background

On 12 December 2015, 20-year-old Christopher Meli died as a result of injuries he sustained when he was attacked by a group of 15-20 males and females in west Belfast.

The father-of-one had been walking with three friends in the Stewartstown Road area when the crowd of attackers ran towards them, knocking Mr Meli to the ground and repeatedly kicking and punching him. By the time the emergency services arrived on the scene, Mr Meli had died as a result of upper airways obstruction and inhalation of blood caused by facial injuries as a result of blows to the head.

Two of Mr Meli’s friends, Ryan Morris and Steven Woods, were also assaulted by the group.

In Belfast Crown Court, eight people were sentenced for the various roles they played in the attack.

Lee Smyth

Lee Smyth pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Mr Meli, on the basis that he joined in the attack and delivered punches and kicks of “moderate force” while Mr Meli was on the ground, without the intention of really serious harm. Mr Smyth also pleaded guilty to counts of affray and assault occasioning actual bodily harm in relation to attacks on Mr Morris and Mr Woods.

Describing Mr Smyth as someone who “played a leading role in the attack” on Mr Meli, Mr Justice Colton said the offence was aggravated by the fact that he “evinced an indifference to the seriousness of the likely injury to the deceased that the sustained blows would have”. Furthermore, Mr Smyth had initially said that Mr Meli “had been armed with a knife and had used it to attack him but he withdrew this account during his plea”.

Noting that Mr Smyth had written a letter to the Meli family expressing remorse, and that the incident affected Mr Smyth’s mental health, Mr Justice Colton said:

“I have no doubt that when you set out drinking on the night in question you never imagined that you would end up in a fight that would result in such a tragic death. I accept as is the basis of your plea that when you involved yourself in this unjustified attack on Mr Meli you did not intend to cause him really serious harm. Of course this is why you face a charge of manslaughter and not murder.”

Mr Justice Colton said the appropriate sentence was one of eleven years. Stating that his guilty plea reinforced the remorse Mr Smyth expressed, Mr Justice Colton reduced this to one of nine years. Pursuant to Article 8(3) of the Criminal Justice (NI) Order 2008, which states that the “custodial period shall not exceed one half of the term of the sentence”, Mr Smyth will serve four-and-a-half years in custody and the rest on licence.

Caolan Laverty

Caolan Laverty also pleaded guilty to manslaughter, on the basis that he was present during the assault but did not intend to encourage or assist the intentional infliction of serious bodily injury or death. He accepted that he kicked Mr Meli when he was lying on the ground, but it was agreed that this did not cause or contribute to Mr Meli’s death.

Distinguishing Mr Laverty’s role from that of Mr Smyth, Mr Justice Colton explained that his plea was “on the agreed basis that he was a secondary participator in a joint enterprise”.

While accepting that Mr Laverty’s participation was a result of peer pressure and immaturity, Mr Justice Colton said: “Particularly shameful was your conduct when you kicked the deceased when he lay on the ground after he had been attacked, although it is accepted that this did not cause or contribute to his death, not does it technically form the basis of an actual offence. Nonetheless it clearly demonstrates your indifference to Mr Meli’s plight at the time of the incident. Although you did not strike any blows to Christopher Meli the role your presence played in the attack should not be underestimated. The mob or pack mentality that takes over in such situations is all too often fuelled and sustained by the support given to the actual attackers by supporters who stand by or join in”.

Mr Justice Colton took into consideration the fact that Mr Laverty, who was sixteen at the time of the incident, appeared to have turned his life around over the last four years in that he had complied with strict bail conditions, he had a full time job, was in a steady relationship, and had a two-year-old son. Mr Justice Colton also allowed a 20% discount for Mr Laverty’s guilty plea.

Mr Laverty was sentenced to five years imprisonment, half of which will be served in custody and half on licence.

Affray and actual bodily harm

Stephen McCann pleaded guilty to affray, for which he received a Community Service Order of 150 hours;

Aaron Stilges pleaded guilty to affray, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm relating to the assault on Steven Woods. Mr Justice Colton imposed a probation order for two years in respect of both counts to run concurrently.

Gary Lewis pleaded guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm relating to the assault on Ryan Morris. Mr Justice Colton imposed a combination order, comprising two years on probation and 40 hours of community service order

Daniel McGrath pleaded guilty to affray, based on his involvement in the attack on Steven Woods and Ryan Morris.  Mr Justice Colton imposed a Community Service Order of 100 hours

Daniel Mc Manus pleaded guilty to affray, for which he received one year of probation.

Shannon McIlwaine pleaded guilty to affray, for which she received a conditional discharge for one year given the fact that her culpability “was very much at the lower end of what constitutes an affray”.

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2020



Other judgments by Judge Adrian Colton QC