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Dublin: 5°C Tuesday 24 November 2020

Martial arts instructor (67) jailed for fatal stabbing of man with whom he had 'dysfunctional' relationship

Noel Lenihan told the court he was acting in self defence when he stabbed Christopher McGrath.

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A 67-YEAR-OLD MARTIAL arts instructor, who repeatedly stabbed a man who he once had an “intimate” relationship with, has been jailed for four years for manslaughter.

Sentencing Noel Lenihan today at the Central Criminal Court, Mr Justice Michael White said the two men’s “dysfunctional” relationship had not been good for either of them based on difficulties complicated by alcohol consumption.

“Difficulties” had come to Lenihan in his “own home” and the court had to give serious consideration to this, noted the judge. However, Mr Justice White said the defendant’s own account of what happened inside his house that night did not reflect the degree of injuries inflicted on the deceased. “No doubt he minimised the degree of excessive force he used,” added the judge.

The court has heard that the two men were previously in an “intimate” relationship and the defendant was considered “a family friend” to the deceased’s younger siblings.

Lenihan from Cardinal Cushing Road, Mervue, Galway was originally charged with murder but pleaded guilty in July to the manslaughter of 38-year-old Christopher McGrath on 12 March 2017 at Lenihan’s home. The plea was accepted by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The court previously heard that Mr McGrath had spent his youth protecting his younger siblings from their “mentally unstable” mother by “taking the brunt” of her “fierce temper”. However, the deceased had a history of difficulties with drugs and alcohol, was in and out of homelessness and would sometimes stay at Lenihan’s house.

The night in question

Lenihan claimed he was acting in self defence when he stabbed Mr McGrath “in fear” with a steak knife after the deceased scaled a wall at the back of his house in the early hours of the morning, came in through a back door and threatened him.

Following a struggle between the pair, Lenihan told gardai in his interviews that Mr McGrath put him in a “scarf hold”, a judo hold that the defendant had previously taught him. The deceased told Lenihan that he would choke him before the defendant found a knife underneath an armchair.

Acting State Pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan said Mr McGrath had suffered five knife wounds, including a fatal wound to the heart that was consistent with a “direct frontal” movement rather than a backwards one. However, Lenihan claimed he had used the knife in a “get off me” motion while he still had his back to Mr McGrath.

Passing sentence today, Mr Justice White noted there was an “internal conflict” on the evidence as to the nature of violence inflicted by Lenihan on Mr McGrath as distinct from the defendant’s own account.

The Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) had fully accepted that Lenihan’s manslaughter sentence was based on excessive self defence, explained the judge, adding that the defendant had no intention to intentionally kill Mr McGrath nor cause him serious harm.

Mr Justice White said the most serious type of harm had been caused in this incident with the tragic loss of Mr McGrath’s life, which has caused so much distress to his family.

“It is the culpability and blame attached to Mr Lenihan which the court has to take into account,” observed the judge, outlining that the court had taken the independent evidence and married it with Lenihan’s evidence.

The judge emphasised there was no doubt that Lenihan was at home in his own property and had gone to bed on the night. The defendant had met Mr McGrath in a hotel premises earlier that evening and bought him a drink, he continued.

Friendship and relationship

Mr McGrath and Lenihan had a long-term friendship and the accused man also had an important friendship with the deceased’s wider family, which they feel has now been breached, pointed out the judge.

“They were known to each other, had a friendship and relationship going back, in what has been described as a dysfunctional relationship. It was not a relationship that was good for either of them based on difficulties complicated by alcohol consumption,” continued the judge.

Referring to Mr McGrath, the judge said he was homeless and in difficulty on the night as there was no bed available for him at the homeless shelter.

Independent evidence had shown the deceased approaching Lenihan’s home close to 4am in the morning, scaling the back wall and coming in the back door, recalled the judge.

There was also evidence that the defendant’s brother Thomas, who was not a drinker, was unhappy about Mr McGrath coming to Lenihan’s house as he felt the relationship was not good for either of them, said Mr Justice White.

Before delivering the sentence today, the judge highlighted that Lenihan was not a man who went outside his own home with a knife on the night, instead “difficulties” had come to him, which Mr Justice White said the court had to give serious consideration to.

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On the night 

Lenihan’s own account of what happened inside his house did not reflect the degree of injuries inflicted on Mr McGrath, continued the judge. Independent evidence had indicated that five stab wounds had been inflicted by Lenihan, one which was consistent with his own account but not the other four, said the judge. The court was satisfied that the fatal wound to Mr McGrath’s heart was inflicted when he was facing the defendant, he said.

It was reasonable to accept that Lenihan was in genuine fear on the night, when Mr McGrath “loudly” came to his door, said Mr Justice White, adding that the defendant did not want to let his friend in but relented because of the noise.

Whilst Lenihan had concerns for his safety on the morning, there was no doubt he minimised the degree of excessive force he had used, said the judge.

The single aggravating factor in the case was the degree of excessive force used, particularly the fatal stab wound inflicted on Mr McGrath, he said.

The substantial mitigating factor in sentencing, Mr Justice White said, was Lenihan’s genuine remorse which included his letter to the court and to Mr McGrath’s family. The defendant wrote an apology to the victim’s family saying: “It breaks my heart to think I have devastated the whole family by taking Christopher away.”

“He is genuinely appalled at the consequences of his actions and will have to live with that for the rest of his life,” continued the judge, adding that the defendant was not prone to violence and had cared for his brother who suffered from schizophrenia. “He was a robust man at the time but now is a much diminished man in terms of his physical capacity,” he concluded.

The court heard that among the other mitigating factors taken into account were Lenihan’s guilty plea, previous “perfect record”, age and ill-health.

The judge said the appropriate headline sentence was seven years but as a result of the substantial mitigating circumstances, he would reduce the headline sentence from seven years to four years.

Lenihan was sentenced to four years imprisonment, backdated to 1 November 2019.

About the author:

Alison O'Riordan

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