The Court of Appeal has found that the sentence of a teenager, who attempted to murder a woman he met on a dating app, was too lenient.
The court said that the element of planning and premeditation meant that, ‘even as attempted murders go’, the offence had to be seen as being at the high end of the spectrum.
The DPP had argued that a review of the 11-year sentence imposed on the teenage boy after a five-year period was too early.
The now 17-year-old, who cannot be named because he is a minor, has been in custody since December 2017, when he lured Stephanie Ng to an isolated area at the Sea Front, Queen's Road, Dun Laoghaire.
After pleading guilty to her attempted murder, the teenager was sentenced to 11 years’ detention in November 2019 with a review to commence on January 1, 2023. The State appealed the sentence on the grounds of ‘unduly leniency’.
The teenager met his 25-year-old victim on the Whisper social media app, where he had pretended to be 19. The boy was just 15 when he tried to kill Ms Ng during their first face-to-face meeting, after suggesting they take a selfie by the water’s edge. There, he grabbed her from behind and choked her to unconsciousness before slashing her neck with a knife.
Gardai later found a book of drawings in his bedroom, containing a sketch of someone being cut up with a knife. The words, ‘serial killer’, had been written on another page.
His victim previously gave evidence of taking what she thought was her last breath, as the teenager tried to ‘choke the life’ out of her before leaving her for dead. She later felt that he was frustrated with himself for not having killed her.
Through tears, she told the Central Criminal Court that the boy had ‘destroyed’ her life.
She attended a remote hearing of the Court of Appeal in May, where the Director of Public Prosecutions appealed the leniency of the sentence imposed on her attacker. The boy and his parents also attended remotely from where he is detained at Oberstown Children Detention Campus.
Anne-Marie Lawlor SC informed the court that the DPP wasn’t taking issue with the sentence of 11 years, but said that the review after five years did not reflect the gravity of the offence.
Ms Lawlor said that the effect of the sentence imposed was to permit the release of the respondent after five years.
“It is the minimum sentence he will serve and does not reflect the gravity of the offence,” she argued.
She said that one could not quibble with the sentencing judge’s view that the headline sentence was one of life.
“It is the view of the respondent that his culpability is reduced in light of his youth and mental condition,” she said. “The director does not quibble with the reduction to 11 years in light of those factors.”
“I say that the minimum time he must spend in custody cannot be five years,” she added.
Patrick Gageby SC, for the teenager, argued that a very important part of the case, to which the judge had given long thought, was the possibility and probability of an emerging psychiatric illness or personality disorder in his client in the coming three or four years.
He said that there was no expectation of release after five years. He pointed to a previous case, where the judge reviewed a life sentence on a juvenile after 10 years, but didn’t release him for a further two years.
“The learned trial judge is very experienced in juvenile matters and, in the last few years, we’ve all done more juvenile cases than … in the past 30 years,” he noted.
Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy noted that the court did not have ‘the fullest information’ about the boy’s medical treatment from before the offence.
“If we were to resentence, would that material be available to us?” he asked.
“I’d have to take instructions on that,” replied Mr Gageby.
The President of the Court of Appeal, Justice George Birmingham, presiding with Justice McCarthy and Justice Isobel Kennedy, delivered judgment today (Thursday).
They concluded that the sentence was simply inadequate, and ‘while obviously the product of great care and attention, did not meet adequately the enormity of the offending behaviour’.
They noted that the boy had requested a further sentence hearing if they found in favour of the DPP. Therefore, they said, they did not think it appropriate to expand at length upon their reasons, which they said would ‘in truth’ be self-evident.
“A crime of attempted murder is, by definition, an offence of extreme seriousness,” they said.
They noted that, for such a conviction, it had to be established that the offender acted with an intention to kill, an intention often not established in a murder.
“In this case, the element of planning and premeditation means that even as attempted murders go, the offence has to be seen as being at the high end of the spectrum,” they added.
They invited both parties to liaise with each other ahead of resentencing.