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Jonathan Dowdall loses appeal against severity of his four-year prison sentence

The court dismissed the former Sinn Féin councillor’s bid to have his jail time reduced.

LAST UPDATE | Jul 14th 2023, 6:06 PM

THE FOUR-YEAR sentence imposed on former Sinn Fein councillor Jonathan Dowdall for facilitating the murder of Kinahan Cartel member David Byrne at the Regency Hotel was “very lenient”, the Court of Appeal has found in dismissing the convicted torturer’s bid to have his jail time reduced.

The three-judge court found today that, had the sentencing judges in Dowdall’s case began with a headline sentence of ten years before considering mitigating and other factors, it was still unlikely the court would have intervened.

Upholding the former electrician’s sentence today, the President of the Court of Appeal Justice George Birmingham said that counsel on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions had commented that the imposition of such a significantly reduced sentence may in all the circumstances be considered generous.

“We would not demur from that observation. Indeed, in our view, the sentence imposed, when viewed in the round, has to be seen as lenient – indeed, very lenient,” said Justice Birmingham.

Dismissing the appeal, Justice Birmingham, who sat with Justice Una Ní Raifeartaigh and Justice Patrick McCarthy, said the court was in no doubt that the sentence imposed by the Special Criminal Court was one that fell within the available range.

“If we had any doubts about the appropriateness of this sentence, it would be as to whether a more severe sentence ought to have been imposed. However, we will contend ourselves by saying we are entirely satisfied that the sentence cannot be regarded as unduly severe,” he added.

Justice Birmingham said the assistance provided by Dowdall was by any standards “very significant’ and its effect was to provide the gang, intent on carrying out the murder, with a base in the hotel.

He said the Special Criminal Court properly had regard to the fact that the appellant continued to assist, even in the aftermath of the murder, by driving back and forth to Northern Ireland the individual within the criminal organisation whom he claimed he had given the room key cards to as late as 7 March, 2016.

During the 52-day trial of crime figure Gerard ‘The Monk’ Hutch, who was acquitted of the murder of Byrne at the Regency Hotel, Dowdall said the arrangement was that he and his father would drop the key cards for the room into the home of Patsy Hutch, Gerard Hutch’s older brother, on Champions Avenue in Dublin’s inner city.

“I rang Patsy to say we were on the way to the house with the key and we were told to leave them on Richmond Road. We went to Richmond Road… and Gerard came and my father gave Gerard the cards,” Dowdall claimed.

Justice Birmingham said the Hutch Criminal Organisation, which Dowdall admitted helping, was “far removed from a group of local juveniles” involved in the unauthorised taking of cars, but was in fact “a tier one criminal organisation”.

Understandably, the appeal court judge said that Dowdall’s counsel had sought to minimise the extent of the assistance offered and its significance. But the Court of Appeal said it found the offending by Dowdall “very serious indeed”.

The appeal judge said Dowdall had sought to put it in the context that assistance had previously been provided to Hutch family members in a non-criminal way by paying for services on their behalf, including purchasing holidays with a credit card.

He said that the identification of a headline or pre-mitigation sentence of eight years was well within the range available to the Special Criminal Court.

“Had the Court identified a somewhat higher pre-mitigation sentence of eight years, such as one that placed the offending on the margin between the top of the midscale and the lower end of the top scale, which would lead to an identification of a headline sentence of the order of ten years, it is unlikely still that this court would have been minded to intervene,” he added.

Justice Birmingham said Dowdall had pointed to the divergence between the sentences imposed on him and on his co-accused and father, Patrick Dowdall, who received a sentence of two years for the same offence.

The appeal judge said the Special Criminal Court had concluded that all things were not equal and that the role of Patrick Dowdall was a lesser role.

The three-judge appeal court found there was a clear basis for differentiating between the roles played by the two Dowdalls and therefore differentiating when it came to sentencing.

They found that Jonathan Dowdall had significant involvement post-murder, driving the person whom he claimed he had given the key cards to Northern Ireland and back and conversing with him during the course of the journeys, where conversations were recorded.

Last October, Patrick Dowdall (65), who also pleaded guilty to facilitating the Hutch gang by making a hotel room available ahead of the murder, was sentenced to two years imprisonment.

The three-judge court found that the issue of the sentencing court suspending part of the sentence to encourage rehabilitation “did not really arise” because Dowdall had decided to “cooperate with the authorities” and “would be leaving the jurisdiction on the completion of his sentence’.

Dowdall sat in the jury box today for the result of last month’s appeal hearing flanked by several prison officers.

Appeal Hearing

Moving to appeal his sentence last month, Dowdall’s barrister, Michael O’Higgins SC, told the Court of Appeal that his client had been “duped” and put in the “firing line” for the Regency Hotel attack.

Lawyers for Dowdall also argued that he may not have faced any trial at all if he’d been allowed to bring an application to dismiss the charges against him, but was denied that chance by a legal “quirk” after being charged before the non-jury Special Criminal Court rather than the District Court.

Room 2104 in the Regency Hotel was booked in the name of Jonathan’s father Patrick Dowdall on 4 February, 2016, one day before Mr Byrne’s murder. Jonathan Dowdall, the sentencing court heard, had driven his father to the hotel on the evening before the attack and a phone associated with him used a mast at the hotel.

The State’s case at Gerard Hutch’s trial was that, after the Regency attack, Hutch asked Dowdall to arrange a meeting with his provisional republican contacts to mediate or resolve the Hutch-Kinahan feud due to the threats against the accused’s family and friends.

Appealing the severity of his four-year sentence for facilitating the Regency attack last month, O’Higgins, for Dowdall, told the three-judge court that while the State may say the hotel room at the hotel was part of the “launching pad” for the murder of Byrne, he would submit it was the “launching pad for a contrived event plan of disinformation, which was put together in a way where my client was left front and centre”.

During the investigation, gardai established the person using the room in the Regency Hotel was Kevin Murray, who had had known paramilitary connections with the IRA.

Murray was very visible over the course of the day on CCTV footage and walked around the hotel freely, while during the attack he was seen on CCTV footage with a handgun held aloft.

During Dowdall’s sentence hearing on June 20, O’Higgins submitted that Murray was there to attract attention on the basis that investigating gardai would be misdirected in a paramilitary direction.

Court of Appeal president Justice George Birmingham said last month that when he first read the appellant’s submissions, his first reaction was that Dowdall had done “extraordinarily well” and asked should he as a judge be drawing attention “to the range of options open”.

The judge pointed out that there were “elements of unreality” about some of the arguments advanced in the submissions.

“This is a person who pleaded guilty to an offence and someone who came before the court having been convicted of a very serious offence in the past and had served a substantial sentence, could he have had any expectation of doing better than he did?” asked the judge.

Justice Birmingham went on to remark that a major issue was that the decisions taken by the appellant were going to have an effect not only on himself but also his family and that the sentencing court had been very conscious of that by making “unusual discounts and then made additional discounts”.

Other grounds of appeal included that Dowdall wasn’t “a time waster or a tyre kicker”, was subjected to up to ten days of cross-examination by counsel during the murder trial of Gerard ‘the Monk’ Hutch and to his credit “went through that process”.

“A person who wants to cross that Rubicon should be aware that courts recognise the huge and significant life changes that flow from that,” he added.

O’Higgins argued that the Special Criminal Court had weighed the consequences of how Dowdall’s life was going to “irredeemably” change on becoming State’s witness “with a blindfold”, that the sentencing court didn’t hear the specifics and did not know what the future held for his client.

“He could have made his plea, been sentenced, walked out and refused to give evidence,” he said.

Counsel also noted that Dowdall should have been entitled to a 30% discount for his guilty plea instead of a 25% one and that a headline sentence of six years was appropriate rather than an eight year one.

“The headline sentence was too high, the discount for his plea [too low] and insufficient weight was given to his psychological and medical reports, with part reference to upending and the change to his life,” submitted O’Higgins.

The lawyer also pointed out that “it shouldn’t be lost in sight that there had been a previous history of booking hotel rooms [by his client for the Hutches] for credit purposes”.

He said most hotels won’t allow a hotel room to be booked without a credit card.

Justice Una Ní Raifeartaigh told the lawyer that it sounded like he was saying that his client had booked a room for an entirely innocent purpose and pointed out that he had pleaded guilty to the facilitation offence.

“It sounds like you are coming very close to the line,” she said.

O’Higgins said he did not accept that because one cannot equivocate that they are put in a straight jacket.

“The law has to be clearly identifiable and it also must be flexible, the reality of the situation was that he was looking at trial for murder, he had offered assistance and he could not offer the plea without admitting what he did,” he said.

He said there was a difference between a person buying burner phones – which he said was a “glowing red flag” – and booking a hotel room, which can lead straight back to the individual.

“It makes them morally less culpable, Dowdall was morally weak in putting himself in that position but he has paid a very high price,” he said.

Opposing the appeal last month, counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Sean Gillane SC, said the central point in the State’s submissions was that the four year sentence handed down to Dowdall could be regarded as generous in terms of the overall nature of the case”.

The hotel room booked at the Regency Hotel, Mr Gillane said, was the “launchpad” for the murder of Kinahan Cartel member David Byrne; “that was the facilitation of a criminal organisation”.

“It was not just the credit card being used to reserve a room but it also involved the bringing of a hotel key to the leading member of that criminal organisation,” he submitted.

He said the nature of the organisation was very relevant and there was also clear evidence that the Hutch Criminal Organisation, a tier one organisation, was involved in murder, money laundering and firearms.

The State’s barrister said the four year sentence received by Dowdall was “indeed a generous” one and reflected the sentencing court giving as much measure as possible to the appellant, given the circumstances he had found himself in.

“Was it fair? Unequivocally yes,” stated Gillane, adding that the headline sentence of eight years was in the midrange, “unimpeachable” and that two separate discounts were applied thereafter totalling a 50% reduction from the headline sentence.

He said there was a subsequent engagement by Dowdall post this event with the same senior member of the criminal organisation, the same individual whom he claimed keys to the room at the hotel had been given and it was Dowdall who brought the same member to the north and back, which was a very relevant consideration.

He said the section 4E argument was not rationally relevant to claims of severity of sentence.

He also submitted that there was never any quid pro quo in this case as once Dowdall entered his plea it was on the basis that he would never have to take any further step.

On 28 September 2022 Dowdall (44) – a married father of four with an address at Navan Road, Cabra, Dublin 7 – pleaded guilty at the Special Criminal Court to making a room available to the Hutch gang at the Regency Hotel, Swords Road, north Dublin, where the notorious murder of Kinahan Cartel member David Byrne occurred in February 2016.

The appellant had been originally charged with the murder of Byrne in April 2021 but the State dropped that charge after Dowdall admitted to the lesser charge of facilitating the Hutch gang by making a hotel room available for use by the perpetrators the night before the attack.

On 17 October 2022, Dowdall was sentenced by the Special Criminal Court to four years imprisonment for facilitating the Hutch gang in the murder of Byrne, as part of the first convictions in the long-running investigation into the Regency Hotel shooting.

In December of last year, Dowdall launched his appeal against his four-year jail-term for facilitating the murder.

Jonathan Dowdall was being assessed for the Witness Protection Programme when he gave evidence for the State against his former friend and one-time co-accused, Mr Hutch, who denied the murder of Mr Byrne.

Last April following the 52-day trial at the Special Criminal Court, crime figure Gerard Hutch was acquitted of the murder of Kinahan Cartel member David Byrne at the Regency Hotel and walked from court a free man.

A man dressed as a woman and another man wearing a flat cap, who were armed with handguns, stormed the hotel followed by three people dressed in tactical-style garda uniforms carrying assault rifles.

It was the State’s case that Hutch was one of two gunmen disguised in tactical gear who shot Kinahan Cartel member Byrne in a “brutal and callous execution” as the victim scrambled on the ground of the Regency Hotel amongst “complete carnage”.

Byrne, from Crumlin, was shot by two of the tactical assailants and died after suffering catastrophic injuries from six gunshots fired from a high-velocity weapon to the head, face, stomach, hand and legs.

Dowdall and his father Patrick both pleaded guilty to participating in or contributing to activity intending to or being reckless as to whether such participation or contribution could facilitate the commission of a serious offence by a criminal organisation or any of its members, to wit the murder of David Byrne, by making a room available at the Regency Hotel for that criminal organisation or its members on 4 February, 2016.

In June 2017, Jonathan Dowdall was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and Patrick Dowdall eight years imprisonment by the Special Criminal Court for physically and mentally torturing the man they both suspected of trying to defraud them.

They had both pleaded guilty at the non-jury Special Criminal Court to falsely imprisoning Alexander Hurley and threatening to kill him at Jonathan’s family home on 15 January, 2015.

However, the Dowdalls successfully appealed their sentences before the Court of Appeal in April 2018 and Jonathan Dowdall was resentenced to 10 years imprisonment with the final 25 months suspended and Patrick Dowdall to seven with the final three years suspended.

Author
Alison O'Riordan