A murder accused "lost control and snapped" when he stabbed another man 40 times "in a frenzied attack" after a row over missing cocaine, his defence barrister told a jury at the Central Criminal Court today.
Defence counsel Brendan Grehan SC also submitted in his closing speech that "fear" was at "the heart of the case" and the accused was not only afraid for "his own skin" but there was also a threat to his parents. He said that his client should be found guilty of manslaughter and not murder.
However, prosecution counsel John Fitzgerald SC said the State's position was that Darren Houlden was not "provoked" and even if some threat to the accused existed, there was no loss of control by how he "weighed up his options" before making the decision to kill Stephen "Apples" Kavanagh.
Evidence has been given that Mr Houlden drove to Arklow Garda Station covered in blood at around 12.35am on the morning of May 6, where he handed a "bloodied knife" to the member-in-charge at the hatch of the public office and told him: "It's my fault. I attacked him. It's all on me."
Mr Houlden told detectives in his interviews that he "went into a rage" and was like a "lunatic for two to three minutes" when he stabbed Mr Kavanagh to death after the victim allegedly threatened that "gangsters" would bring him to "the woods" and shoot him over the missing cocaine.
Mr Houlden told gardai that "no matter what" he was going to stop the deceased making a second phone call after he said the victim threatened to get "bodies down" to his house following the argument over the missing drugs.
Former Deputy State Pathologist Dr Michael Curtis has testified that Mr Kavanagh died after receiving "around 40 knife wounds" to the head, neck and face, which included the slicing of the right jugular vein and the thyroid artery, which cut the pharynx in the victim's throat.
Mr Houlden (44), with an address at The Crescent, Meadowvale, Arklow, Co Wicklow, has pleaded not (NOT) guilty to murder but guilty to the manslaughter of Mr Kavanagh (37) at the same location in the early hours of May 6, 2019. His plea was rejected by the State.
Addressing the jury, Mr Grehan said that this was not a "cold-blooded killing" or "planned assassination" like the murders one see committed on the television and in the newspapers. "This was a hot-blooded killing where something happened through the set of circumstances in which Mr Houlden found himself and could not have anticipated," he indicated.
The barrister explained that provocation is an act done by the deceased to an accused, which would cause a reasonable person "a sudden and temporary loss of self-control" that meant he was no longer master of his own mind and compel him to act in a way that he would not ordinarily act. The partial defence can reduce an intentional killing from murder to manslaughter, he said.
Mr Grehan submitted that people get killed over small quantities of drugs and the prosecution focusing in their closing speech on the value of the missing cocaine, which amounted to €591, was "somewhat missing the point".
Counsel said that three people had got together at Meadowvale in May 2019 and had a "hell of a good time in terms of consuming drugs". Mr Kavanagh had been the provider of this "munificent bounty" of crack cocaine and the point came "where the party had to stop" and there was a "frantic search" for drugs that had gone missing, he said, adding that it was in those circumstances that the killing of Mr Kavanagh came about.
Mr Kavanagh's girlfriend Rachel Kearney gave evidence that she saw the accused "slaughtering" and "overkilling" her boyfriend. The witness said that Mr Houlden was on top of her partner and had his knees on his back as he stabbed the victim.
Mr Grehan told the jurors that the prosecution had "unfairly" suggested that Mr Houlden had a long time to reflect on the killing, compose himself and make decisions. He said the jurors would be doing a "great disservice" to his client if they took the State's position that provocation did not apply in the case.
Going through the evidence in the trial, Mr Grehan said that Mr Houlden put a hatchet at his front door after he was told by Mr Kavanagh that people were coming to his house with "shooters" after the drugs went missing. The barrister remarked that there was a "ratcheting up of pressure" on the accused when the drugs weren't found and this was what had caused his client to lose his self-control. "It's a simple act of [Mr Kavanagh saying] 'I'm going to make that call, you will be shot and your family will be taken care'," said Mr Grehan.
The lawyer said the accused did not pick up the knife to attack Mr Kavanagh but had put it in his pocket for self-protection in case people came to his house. "There is no sense of Mr Houlden attacking Mr Kavanagh until the final precipitating factor of the deceased saying that he was making the second phone call," he said, adding that a call was made by Mr Kavanagh to Jason Farrell at 00.18 on May 6.
Mr Houlden told gardai in his interviews that he got a knife and went upstairs to try and talk Mr Kavanagh out of ringing these people but he couldn't. Mr Houlden said he stabbed Mr Kavanagh in the neck as he was making the second phone call.
"Fear", counsel stressed, "was at the heart of this case" and had caused Mr Houlden "to snap". The barrister noted that this case was not just about the accused being afraid for "his own skin" but there was also a threat to his parents.
The trial heard that when gardai asked the accused what his thought process was after he put the knife in his pocket, Mr Houlden said: "I was not going to let him set me up to be killed because up to that stage there were three or four threats made about being shot or being brought to the woods and shot or my family would have to pay the bill."
Counsel said his client was a man in his forties, who was living at home with his parents, minding the house for the weekend when suddenly he was faced with "this situation". It would not be an "unknown phenomenon" for a debt to be put on someone's family if they don't "pay up" a drug debt, he said. The accused was reacting to something that was "unfolding" and he was trying to talk Mr Kavanagh out of making a phone call which threatened him and his family, said counsel.
Furthermore, Mr Grehan told the jury that they had a "solid foundation" upon which to consider provocation and Mr Houlden was a man "at the end of his tether who had just snapped in a very small period of time" before stabbing the accused.
Mr Houlden had simply reacted to what he perceived as being "a life or death situation", he said. "When someone says they are coming to get you and your parents, you might surprise yourself as to how you might react," he pointed out.
Mr Grehan acknowledged that his client had stabbed Mr Kavanagh over 40 times "in a frenzied attack" and engaged in "overkill". He submitted to the jury that the appropriate verdict to return was guilty of manslaughter.
In his closing speech, prosecution counsel John Fitzgerald SC said the intention to kill is not in dispute as the accused had "quite candidly" explained in his interviews that he wanted to kill Mr Kavanagh and "went for his brain" in the knife attack. "The issue boils down to when he did want to kill him, did he do so in response to a provocation by Mr Kavanagh," he said.
The barrister said that Mr Houlden told gardai in his interview that he heard Mr Kavanagh on the first phone call saying to someone: "There is trouble down here, your stuff has been taken, get bodies down here." Counsel said this first call was a specific and detailed account of a conversation which sent Mr Houlden into a "tailspin of anger".
Mr Fitzgerald told the jury that the first question to ask was whether they believed Mr Houlden's account. Counsel reminded the jury of Ms Kearney's evidence, who said she did not hear a phone call being made by her boyfriend "about getting men down here or bodies".
The lawyer said both the accused and the deceased were familiar with drugs and yet it seemed "all of this life and death emergency was caused by drugs valued at €590". He said one must consider how credible the accused's story was and that anyone would die over €590. The drugs were found without any great difficulty in a bookcase in the accused's bedroom, which Mr Fitzgerald said was very hard to reconcile with this "life and death situation" and people threatening that "lives were on the line".
Addressing the issue of provocation, Mr Fitzgerald said that the defence cannot arise because someone was upset, lost their temper or became angry about six grams of drugs going missing. "There is a big difference between getting angry and losing control," he said.
Counsel submitted that Mr Houlden had not "lost his mind" and told gardai that he killed Mr Kavanagh to stop him making a second call. "There was a rational, a reason for doing what he did, that's not provocation or loss of self-control," he said, adding that the accused was "reasoning things out in his mind" and considering his options over the 20 minute period prior to the attack on Mr Kavanagh.
Mr Fitzgerald said the State's position was that no provocation existed in the case and even if there was some provocation or threat to the accused, there was no loss of control by the manner in which he responded to the threats and weighed up his options before making the decision to kill Mr Kavanagh.
Ms Justice Carmel Stewart will complete her charge to the jury of eight men and four women tomorrow before they commence their deliberations.