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Inside of court room.

Wicklow GAA player found guilty of assaulting opponent during league match 5 years ago

A jury convicted Billy Cullen (39) of a single charge of assault causing harm.

A WICKLOW GAA club player has been found guilty of punching an opponent in the face and damaging several of his victim’s teeth during a competitive match five years ago.

A jury of seven men and five women convicted Billy Cullen (39) of a single charge of assault causing harm contrary to Section 3 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 following a two-day trial at Wicklow Circuit Criminal Court.

The violent incident had occurred during a Wicklow Division One league match between Blessington and Baltinglass at the grounds of Blessington GAA club on June 9, 2019.

Cullen of Lathaleere, Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, who was playing for his local GAA club had pleaded not guilty to the charge of assaulting Blessington midfielder, Kevin Rogers, during play with a punch to the face.

The jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict following two hours of deliberation.

The trial at Bray Courthouse heard that Cullen claimed he was acting in self-defence after he had been fouled by Mr Rogers when he was bearing down on goal.

However, the defendant had told gardaí in 2019 that he believed his opponent had incurred his injuries when he accidentally came in contact with the back of the head of one of his own players after the breakout of “a general melee” over his interaction with Mr Rogers.

The incident between the two players happened during the second half of the match when Blessington were ahead in the game which they ultimately won.

Video footage shown at the trial captured some of the incident which occurred after play had continued despite the referee having blown the whistle for a foul involving other players.

In evidence, Mr Rogers described shouldering the accused who then feinted a punch at him.

The Blessington player admitted tripping the defendant who fell to the ground.

Mr Rogers said the accused threw the ball in his face after getting up followed by a punch “straight into my mouth.”

The court heard the victim had blood running from his mouth, while his gumshield was split.

After Cullen was given a red card, Mr Rogers claimed the defendant looked at him laughing and said: “Go on, you f**king coward.”

Mr Rogers said he tried pushing some loosened teeth back into his gum before attending an emergency dental clinic in Dublin.

At one stage he thought that the punch had “knocked six teeth down my throat.”

The court heard that the player ultimately lost only one tooth but also required surgery on several other teeth which had been “chipped and badly damaged” as well as requiring ongoing treatment.

Under cross-examination, he denied that he had initially tried to stop his opponent with a “clothes line” tackle but accepted he had tripped Cullen.

He also acknowledged that he had stood over his opponent as he was on the ground but insisted that “nothing was going to happen.”

Mr Rogers claimed the first element of aggression in the incident was the attempted punch thrown by the defendant.

The court heard Cullen told gardaí that he had initially received a “stiff-armed, closed-fist blow” from Mr Rogers before being kicked “around the shins” and given a frontal shoulder charge to the chest.

He said he kept his head down and tried to protect himself as a “general melee” among players of both teams broke out for about ten seconds.

In a closing speech at the trial, counsel for the DPP, James Kelly BL, said video footage of the match clearly showed a blow being struck by the accused.

Mr Kelly said the jury had also heard the evidence of the victim and the harm he had suffered.

He claimed the suggestion that Mr Rogers had attempted to “clothes line” his opponent was “a nonsense theory.”

In response to the argument that Cullen had acted in self-defence, Mr Kelly said there had been a gap between the defendant being tripped and the blow he gave to Mr Rogers who had posed no threat.

The prosecution counsel also pointed out that Cullen had never suggested to gardaí that he had been acting in self-defence.

Mr Kelly said the accused’s action did not constitute self-defence as it was “retribution” which was criminal behaviour.

“You cannot retaliate in that fashion lawfully,” said Mr Kelly.

Counsel for the defendant, Damian Sheridan BL, accepted that Cullen could not legitimately say he was acting to defend himself if he had been subjected to just being tripped, or being shouldered in the chest or being “clothes-lined” on their own.

However, Mr Sheridan said the “accumulation” of those actions made things different and he wondered how one would know if Mr Rogers was “going to stop.”

He accepted that the defendant had lashed out with a single punch as if to indicate – “get away from me.”

“It happened in a moment and was over like that,” said Mr Sheridan, clicking his fingers.

The barrister also pointed out that the trial had only heard evidence from players from Blessington and criticised “the complete failure” of the prosecution to produce any witnesses from the Baltinglass club.

A Garda witness had earlier told the court that he had contacted the chairman of Baltinglass GAA club to ask if any of their players would provide a statement but “nobody came forward.”

Mr Sheridan claimed the prosecution had sought to magnify what Cullen had done while minimising the part played by Mr Rogers.

Judge Terence O’Sullivan had advised the jury that they needed to satisfy themselves that Cullen had thrown a punch at Mr Rogers.

He told jurors that to accept the defence of self-defence, they must also be satisfied that the accused needed to use force to protect himself and that he honestly believed the force that was used was necessary.

Following the verdict, the judge remanded Cullen on bail and adjourned the case for mention until next week to fix a date for sentencing.

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Seán McCárthaigh