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Court of Appeal

Teacher who sexually exploited teenage girl over Instagram has jail term doubled on appeal

The Galway native also pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography, relating to two videos of graphic content.

THE ONE-YEAR JAIL term handed down to a married secondary school teacher who sexually exploited a 16-year-old girl through Instagram was too lenient, the Court of Appeal has ruled in doubling his sentence.

The three-judge court had heard a probation report found that the defendant John Murphy (43) has some “in-built hostility to women” and was at medium risk of reoffending.

Murphy, a married father of one with an address at Ferncourt Crescent, Ballycullen in Dublin, pleaded guilty at Wicklow Circuit Criminal Court in July last year to a charge of the sexual exploitation of the then 16-year-old victim on dates between June 2017 and June 2018.

The Galway native also pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography, relating to two videos of graphic content. Those offences occurred in 2008 and 2010.

Appealing the leniency of the sentence given to Murphy earlier this month, Roisin Lacey SC, for the Director of Public Prosecutions, said that when passing sentence, Judge Cormac Quinn had failed to adequately take into account a number of aggravating factors.

Murphy, she said, carried on the communications with the vulnerable 16-year-old for a whole year while he was a secondary school teacher and she was doing her junior certificate exams.

Lacey said the sentencing judge had put too much weight on mitigating factors, such as Murphy’s good career and lack of previous convictions, and not enough weight on the aggravating factors. The offending had a serious impact on the victim, she said.

In ruling on the State’s application to overturn the sentence at the Court of Appeal today, Justice George Birmingham said the trial judge’s assessment that the accused might not have been aware of the specific vulnerabilities of the injured party “might seem generous”.

“A probation report records the accused as acknowledging his awareness of the victim’s mental health difficulties and his eagerness to affirm that these difficulties predated his contact with her. The complainant had referred to self-harm and to the fact that years earlier she had been diagnosed as clinically depressed,” said Justice Birmingham.

The trial judge took into account Murphy’s personal circumstances by way of mitigation in that the accused was 42 years old at the time of his sentencing, married, had a young child, came from a good family and benefited from their support, said Justice Birmingham.

Early pleas of guilty also avoided any issue regarding the search warrant which resulted in gardaí accessing the computer devices on which the child pornography was located, noted Justice Birmingham.

Justice Birmingham noted that the trial judge had said, “bearing in mind the issues set out in the probation report and to incentivise and to ensure rehabilitation, I am going to suspend the final two years of that sentence”.

“The respondent knew, or ought to have known, he was dealing with a vulnerable complainant and even if he did not have specific knowledge of the complainant’s individual vulnerabilities, and we think he did, as a teacher, he must have known that a child of that age was vulnerable,” said Justice Birmingham.

The child pornography material was “placed in category one”, the judge also noted.

“Accessing the material had taken place in 2007 to 2010, and a consecutive sentence, though technically available, would seem harsh. On the other hand, the possession of such material is not a matter to be ignored,” said Justice Birmingham.

“Had the judge arrived at a sentence of three years and left matters there it seems to us that the sentence would have been a not inappropriate one, and one with which we would not have been minded to interfere with,” he said. Justice Birmingham said the court was of the view that suspending two years of the three-year sentence was “excessive and amounted to an error”.

Resentencing as of today’s date, he said the court was prepared to suspend the final 12 months of the adjusted three-year sentence.

At the appeal hearing Lacey said there had been an escalation in the graphic nature of the communication between Murphy and the girl, including “explicit descriptions of penetrating her and what he wanted to do to her”.

She cited a further concern that a probation report had stated that Murphy “tended to rationalise his behaviour” and is at a medium risk of reoffending.

The report also stated that Murphy had a limited understanding of the harm he caused, was emotionally disconnected, had limited insight of his offending and displayed sexually compulsive behaviour over a long period.

A sitting of Wicklow Circuit Criminal Court had previously heard Murphy, who resigned from his teaching job in Tallaght in 2022, had during text exchanges with the girl on Instagram asked her for naked pictures of herself and told her that he wanted to be the one to take her virginity.

While no images of the girl were found on Murphy’s computer, she told gardaí that she had sent images of her in her underwear to the accused.

Lacey said the sentencing judge had set a headline sentence of six years but reduced that to three years and then suspended the final two years.

When sentencing Murphy, Judge Corman Quinn said Murphy’s online exchanges with the girl had been “peppered with explicit sexual conversations”, which had escalated over time. The judge accepted that Murphy, who was 36 when he began contact with the girl, had never made any concrete plans to try and meet his victim in person.

He also noted that the accused had no previous criminal convictions and had cooperated with gardaí and provided them with passwords to his devices. The judge said an aggravating factor in the case was the gap in ages between the parties.

Judge Quinn said it was clear from a victim impact statement provided by the girl that she had been severely affected by the offences.

While Murphy might not have known his victim was a specifically vulnerable child, the judge said, as a teacher, he should have known anyone of that age was vulnerable, but instead he had “preyed” upon that.

The judge acknowledged that Murphy had entered an early guilty plea and had not raised the issue of a recent court ruling over the need to specifically note computers and other devices in applications for search warrants.

Murphy had also offered an unreserved apology to his victim and expressed his sincere remorse, the court heard.

The judge also accepted that Murphy had suffered the loss of his career as a teacher, as well as some adverse publicity.

The court had previously heard that a probation report had also remarked that Murphy had some “in-built hostility to women”.

Judge Quinn said the victim in the case should be commended and had done “absolutely nothing wrong” as she had been “preyed upon by the accused”.

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