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Armagh man who ‘killed’ neighbour (65) in a fistfight says he is lucky to avoid jail

Nigel Burgess died of a heart attack after being punched by Co Armagh man Brian Nicholl

Brian Nicholl

Nigel Burgess

Brian Nicholl talks to Sunday World reporter Steven Moore

Steven Moore and Paul HigginsSunday World

A man who ‘killed’ his neighbour in a fistfight that triggered a massive heart attack admits he’s lucky not to be behind bars.

Brian Nicholl, pictured here for the first time, pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of 65-year-old neighbour Nigel Burgess following an altercation in their street in Armagh three years ago.

The 54-year-old, of Ballinahone Close in Armagh, walked free from Newry Crown Court last week with one of the lightest sentences any convicted killer has ever received in Northern Irish legal history.

Judge Gordon Kerr KC gave Nicholl just 100 hours of community service and two years’ supervised probation.

This week, when we called at Brian Nicholl’s door to ask him what happened that day and if he thought he got away lightly he said, “I was surprised at the sentence alright, I thought I was going to jail. I was expecting it.

“But the circumstances of what happened were so unusual. It was a tragic accident which I obviously regret and am sorry for.”

And when we put it to him that he was now a ‘convicted killer’ he said: “I know, that’s hard to hear but I decided to plead guilty because it had caused enough stress to everyone involved.

“I think the people in Armagh have accepted the unusual circumstances of what happened. Nobody is calling me a murderer or killer or anything like that.

“I’m hoping now it’s all over everyone can just get on with their lives.”

Nicholl, who it emerged during sentencing has 78 previous convictions, told the Sunday World Mr Burgess had been involved in a campaign against another resident in the street and he had been trying to help the other neighbour out.

“He (Nigel Burgess) had been accusing a foreign national who lived in the street of being a drug dealer but he wasn’t any such thing,” said Mr Nicholl.

“But he got it in his head that he was and he made things difficult for this guy, who has since moved away. He was shining his lights into his house and being generally awkward.

“On the day of the tragic incident the neighbour came over to me to tell me Mr Burgess had blocked his car in and he couldn’t get out.

“I went out and there were words and then he came at me and I punched him. He punched me back and we both fell to the ground. It didn’t last very long and I just went inside.

“I thought he must have gone inside too but when I came out to get my phone which had fallen out, he was slumped behind the wall.

Nigel Burgess

“He was still breathing but he was out of it.”

During his sentence hearing the court was told how a post-mortem showed the victim had severe narrowing of his arteries which were clogged and that there was no evidence he had been punched unconscious.

“It was proven he had suffered a massive heart attack. It was just really unfortunate. That’s not to say I don’t severely regret what happened. It should never have happened.

“When the police told me he had died I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it because we only exchanged a few punches.

“Initially the police released me without charge but they came back six months later and charged me with manslaughter which was another big shock. It was hard to believe.”

Summarising the case Judge Kerr outlined how the defendant and Mr Burgess lived three doors apart in the cul-de-sac.

Nicholl came outside and there was a verbal confrontation with Mr Burgess, with the defendant then throwing a punch.

“The deceased fought to defend himself and a fight ensued during which Nicholl accepts that they exchanged punches,” the judge said.

He added that it only stopped when Mr Burgess was “lying motionless and unconscious on the ground”.

Following this, Nicholl left him and walked away, going back into his house where he changed his clothes.

Meanwhile, other neighbours who saw parts of the fight went to check on Mr Burgess and shouted to Nicholl that he wasn’t moving. When he came out again, he tried to roll him over and told him to get up.

Police and paramedics tried to resuscitate Mr Burgess, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.

The judge explained that the pathologist and a cardiac specialist were agreed in their views that Mr Burgess had suffered a fatal heart attack during the fight and that his death was most likely instantaneous.

He noted that the death had “badly affected” Mr Burgess’ 13 siblings, some of whom needed counselling.

He said he had received a “moving” statement from his brother David who outlined how “there are no words to fully describe the impact…or to describe the living hell in the days, weeks, months and years”.

When arrested, Nicholl denied doing anything that would have caused his neighbour’s death.

Judge Kerr revealed the father-of-two has 78 previous convictions, mainly for public order offences, but had no convictions in the last 12 years.

Brian Nicholl talks to Sunday World reporter Steven Moore

He also said Nicholl has had to stop working as a painter and decorator due to ill health and is the main carer for his wife and elderly mother.

“In this case, it’s important to note that the parties agree the fact of the death means that the custody threshold has been met,” Judge Kerr told the court.

The defence argued the case could be met with a suspended sentence, but Judge Kerr did not consider that to be appropriate. He said the enhanced combination order was a direct alternative to a 12-month sentence.

Following sentencing, police said the case showed how lives could be changed in seconds and urged people to think about their actions.

Detective inspector Michelle Griffin said: “Police officers, along with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, responded to a report of a fight between the two men in the Ballynahone Close area of the city. This was on the night of Saturday, April 11, 2020.

“Mr Burgess was found lying unresponsive on the ground and, sadly, was later pronounced dead at the scene.

“A subsequent post-mortem revealed pre-existing heart disease. It’s believed that Mr Burgess’ death was caused by a cardiac arrest, triggered during the physical altercation between the two.

“This is a tragic case, which has seen a life cut short and left loved ones bereft. I would urge people to think about how their actions, within a matter of minutes or even seconds, can change lives forever.”

The victim’s family expressed thanks to the police and Ambulance Service for their response and support, especially in efforts to resuscitate Mr Burgess.

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