In sentencing Craig O'Donoghue to two months in prison for a "premeditated, flagrant and persistent" contempt of court, Mr Justice David Keane described him as the author of his own misfortune regarding the contempt, but also regarding his testing positive for Covid-19 on his return from Cyprus.
O'Donoghue, of Killala Court, Knocknaheeney, Cork, was before the Central Criminal Court today. His co-accused, Darragh O'Connor (20), of Deermount, Deerpark, Cork, was sentenced for a similar contempt last week.
Detective Garda Bríd Norris was the lead investigator into the murder of Cameron Blair.
She told prosecution counsel John Fitzgerald SC that a teenager had pleaded guilty to Mr Blair’s murder and received a life sentence. However, another teenager was due to go on trial on May 24, charged with violent disorder, and O’Donoghue was witness 36 in the Book of Evidence.
She said that he was in a position to identify the teenager as being present and having been in possession of a bent silver butter knife.
“But it was useless. You couldn’t cut anyone with it,” O’Donoghue had told gardaí.
O’Donoghue was served with a witness order on May 3 this year. It was signed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, provided the date of trial and advised that failure to comply was a contempt of court.
The garda serving the order also explained where and when he would be required to attend. O’Donoghue raised no issue and said nothing about his unavailability.
However, as the trial approached, he did not answer calls and did not show up to Douglas garda station to collect a train voucher and copy of his witness statement.
The trial commenced at the end of May and it was indicated that O’Donoghue would be needed on June 2.
Gda Byrne rang his phone on 10 occasions and a sergeant called to his home. O’Donoghue’s mother informed the sergeant that O’Donoghue was on holidays in Aiya Napa, Cyprus.
The gardaí learned that he had boarded a Ryanair flight out of Ireland on May 27, which had been booked on May 11.
Gda Byrne sent him a further message that a bench warrant might issue.
It was also decided to enlist the help of members of the An Garda Síochána serving with the UN in the same area of Cyprus.
A superintendent based there contacted him on June 7, but O’Donoghue refused to meet him. He said he was considering moving to Cyprus permanently.
Bench warrants were explained to him and he was told it would save a lot of hassle in the long run if he would cooperate.
His phone was powered off the next day and a bench warrant was issued.
His grandfather contacted him and O’Donoghue told him that he would not be returning. His mother also attempted to convince him to return home and the family was prepared to assist financially to bring him back.
He phoned his grandfather in Det Gda Norris’s presence on June 12. He was angry that the gardaí were calling to his family. She explained that if he answered his phone they wouldn’t have had to.
O’Donoghue expressed concern about media coverage of the trial. He said he had an open ticket and might return on June 30 or July 1. Det Gda Norris indicated that the trial was now effectively on hold and that he was needed.
He said he had taken a week off to give evidence in the trial previously and wasn’t called. He offered his evidence by video link but did not follow through on that offer. It was explained to him that a bench warrant had issued.
On June 16, the defence accepted that the teenager on trial was in possession of the butter knife and the trial ended. The DPP said it was not proceeding with the count of possession of a knife in circumstances where the accused accepted he was in possession of a butter knife, which would not come within the meaning of the original charge.
O’Donoghue returned home on July 2 and was arrested at Dublin Airport. He has been in custody since.
Michael Bowman SC, defending, told the judge that O’Donoghue acknowledged his contempt and handed in a letter of apology. He explained that he had been in isolation in prison and had no visits from anybody.
He said his client was aware of an obvious duty to the family of Cameron Blair and of the anguish and concern he had caused.
“He has had an opportunity to reflect while in prison,” he said. “He accepts unreservedly he was wrong in every step he took, not only in terms of the law, but that he also had a moral obligation.”
Mr Bowman said his client expressed his remorse to the court and the Blair family.
“All he can say to the court is that he has learned a lesson of the most serious kind, finding himself in custody for the first time in his life,” he said.
“He has resolved not to find himself back before the courts under any circumstances,” he added. “In terms of rehabilitation, there’s no more sobering an experience for a young man than to find himself in custody.”
Dressed in a blue t-shirt and grey tracksuit bottoms, O’Donoghue stood to be sentenced.
Justice Keane described it as a “flagrant” contempt. He noted that his co-accused had been served with the witness summons after he had booked the holiday, but that O’Donoghue had been served with a witness order beforehand.
“The contempt was premeditated, deliberate, flagrant and persistent,” he said. “He was aware of his obligation and nonetheless booked to depart for a holiday. He had the intention to disobey the witness order.”
The judge said that it was not for a witness to set the parameters.
“It is not open to a witness to go on holidays abroad and then suggest that the State might provide a video link,” he said.
He said this would make it impossible to organise criminal trials and would undermine the administration of justice and rule of law.
“He has shown the utmost disdain for the laws of the land,” he said. “It’s a contempt that is likely to have had a significant damaging effect on the administration of justice in this trial…His culpability is high.”
Justice Keane set a headline sentence of three months in prison, but reduced it by a month after considering mitigation, which included O’Donoghue’s regret and that he was of previous good character.
He noted that going into custody had represented a significant shock to his system and also that no remission is available in an offence of contempt.
He described as significant the letter in which O’Donoghue wrote of his disgust with himself and profound sympathy for the Blair family.
He noted that, in the context of the pandemic, it had been necessary to place him in isolation when he went into custody.
“I understand he subsequently tested positive for Covid and that would have made the experience of custody even more difficult,” he said.
“It is common case that Mr O’Donoghue chose to leave Ireland for Cyprus at a time when the pandemic was at or close to his height,” he said. “It can’t be viewed as a sensible course of action. In the context that he contracted Covid-19 and in the context of his contempt of court, he is the author of his own misfortune.”
He said that it was also appropriate to impose a fine of €1,000. He gave him nine months to pay it.