The jail term handed down to the man who brandished a large knife as he “encouraged violence” outside a house party where 20-year-old college student Cameron Blair was stabbed to death has been increased after a successful appeal by the State.
Scott O’Connor (20) – whom the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) described as the instigator of events outside the party – was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment with three years suspended after he had pleaded guilty in January last year at the Central Criminal Court to committing violent disorder at Bandon Road in Cork city on January 16th, 2020.
O’Connor, of Churchfield Square, Cork city, also pleaded guilty to producing an article capable of inflicting serious injury in the course of a dispute, to wit a knife, in a manner likely unlawfully to intimidate another person on the same occasion, at the Central Criminal Court in January 2021.
The DPP later appealed the sentence imposed by Mr Justice David Keane on the grounds that the three-year suspended portion was “unduly lenient”.
Anne Rowland SC, for the DPP, had previously told the Court of Appeal that the sentence represented a “substantial departure from the norm, given the unusual and grave circumstances surrounding the case”.
In a judgement delivered on Tuesday by Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy – sitting with Mr Justice John Edwards, presiding, and Mr Patrick McCarthy – the three-judge court said it agreed with the DPP and was quashing O’Connor’s sentence.
Noting that O’Connor had armed himself with a knife and encouraged “a situation of violence to develop”, Ms Justice Kennedy stated that the respondent, who was 18 at the time, was not under any threat.
“We observe that the occupants must have experienced pure terror in the face of such violence. These factors alone mean that his culpability is high,” she added.
“It is clear that the unfortunate deceased had no part in any violence, he simply tried to monitor the front door, and the judge [Mr Justice Keane] properly described his conduct as ‘steadfastly openhearted [and] courteous’. That the events of the night led to his death is shocking and tragic.”
By reducing the suspension portion of the sentence from three years to two years, and thereby increasing O’Connor’s jail time by one year, Ms Justice Kennedy said the appellate court was striving to strike the right balance “between the penal objective of punishment and the competing desistance objective of rehabilitation of the offender”.
“This is a finely balanced case… and we consider that the judge erred in suspending such a significant portion of the five-year term, resulting in an actual prison term of two years,” she said.
After judgment was delivered, Mr Justice Edwards extended the court’s condolences to members of Mr Blair’s family who were sitting in the public gallery.
The Central Criminal Court previously heard that the offences occurred outside a terraced house which was being rented by a number of students.
The students had decided to have a pre-drinks party as part of UCC Freshers' Week and there were approximately 50 people "coming and going" to the party at various times between 6.30pm and 9.30pm that evening.
A drunk homeless man, who had met up with three youths a short distance down the road, started banging at the door of the house around 7pm. The homeless man was asked to leave after banging several times on the door but as the latch of the door was damaged, it could be easily pushed in. One man who was renting the property told the drunk man to leave and he fell onto the ground.
Three teenagers – O'Connor, a 17-year-old boy and a 14-year-old boy – had remonstrated with the student who had refused admittance to the drunk man. The court heard that Cameron Blair, in an effort to diffuse the situation, had invited the three youths into the party.
At an appeal hearing last month on March 9th, Ms Rowland said O’Connor had armed himself with an extremely large knife which he had removed from the kitchen and was later seen “brandishing it, holding it high above his head” on the doorstep of house moments before Mr Blair was fatally stabbed.
During Ms Rowland’s submission, CCTV footage was played to the court in which Mr Blair’s killer, who cannot be named because he is still a juvenile, was clearly seen tapping a knife against his leg as he stood close to O’Connor, before the fateful scuffle at the door of the house broke out.
This juvenile pleaded guilty in March 2020 to murdering Mr Blair and received a life sentence that will be reviewed in 2032.
“It is the DPP’s submission that the culpability of the accused [O’Connor] was extremely high as he was the instigator of events outside the party,” Ms Rowland continued.
Although the death of Mr Blair could not be “laid at the door” of the respondent, Ms Rowland said the court could not decide the appeal in “a vacuum” and ignore the “febrile atmosphere” which O’Connor had played a major role in creating on the night Mr Blair was killed.
In response, Ronan Munro SC for O’Connor, said his client had expressed his extreme regret and remorse for his involvement in events which led to Mr Blair’s death.
“He reacted, as he should have reacted, in relation to what happened,” counsel continued.
“The offender had just turned 18 years of age, he had pleaded guilty to each of the two offences early in the process and that had saved everybody quite a long trial,” Mr Munro added.
Mr Munro said his client was a first-time offender who had never been imprisoned before, and the question before the court was how long should his punishment for this offence be.
“It is hard not to be emotive about this case. There are particular emotions stirred up, particularly by the event at the centre of it,” he added.
“But for someone in his [client’s] position and with his background, a two-year [custodial] sentence is a significant sentence,” he said.
On hearing submissions, Mr Justice John Edwards said that the circumstances surrounding this offence “were truly egregious”.
“A young man had lost his life,” Mr Justice Edwards said. “A balance had to be struck, but the egregious nature of the offending had to be appropriately marked. There seems to be an incorrect balance. That seems to be the case that is being made.”
Sentencing O'Connor at the Central Criminal Court last July, Mr Justice David Keane said that the defendant had "deliberately armed" himself and threatened others with a knife in a "calculated and deliberate" manner but had not used the weapon.
The judge noted that the act occurred on a public street and O'Connor had engaged in the confrontation for five minutes, which he called "a prolonged and protracted period of time".
"At all times it was open to him to walk away," he added.
He said the actions by O'Connor were "entirely unprovoked" and directed towards people who had shown him and his two companions "hospitality" during the evening.
"The purpose was to threaten and intimidate students at the house," he remarked, adding that there was no intention on his part to kill anyone or cause serious harm.
Mr Justice Keane described Mr Blair as steadfast, cheerful, open-hearted, courteous and conciliatory and someone who had shown the three teenagers nothing but kindness and hospitality that night.
Referring to "the utter senselessness" of the incident which magnified the "utter and indescribable tragedy of Cameron's death", the judge said he would like to extend his sincere condolences to his family and friends on "the tragic and irreplaceable loss of a fine young man".