Nigel Thomas Martin McGothigan, 30, who is originally from the Broombeg area of Ballycastle, pleaded guilty to the manslaugher of Kevin O’Neill, who died from a single stab wound following an altercation at a house in the seaside town on April 21 last year.
Passing sentence, Mr Justice O’Hara said that after reading a family impact statement, Mr O’Neill’s family were “having great difficulty coping with his loss”.
The judge set out the background to the manslaughter and told Antrim Crown Court, sitting in Belfast, that McGothigan had been staying at a friend’s house in the Stronashesk Park area over the weekend of April 19 to 21 last year where he had been helping out looking after new-born puppies.
At around 1pm on Sunday April 21, as McGothigan was making lunch, Mr O’Neill – who appeared to be “under the influence of alcohol” – arrived at the house. A confrontation between the two men then broke out, with the judge saying that it was Mr O’Neill who “behaved aggressively ... and was verbally abusive” to McGothigan.
Mr Justice O’Hara said he accepted McGothigan “tried to avoid trouble”, was sober and didn’t want to fight, but that a “scuffle or wrestle” broke out, during which McGothigan lifted a knife and stabbed Mr O’Neill once in the chest.
Addressing McGothigan, the judge said: “The evidence is that after the stabbing, you stayed at the scene, tried to stem the flow of blood from Mr O’Neill’s chest and called 999.”
The judge also said that after reading reports on McGothigan, it emerged he had an IQ of 64, which placed him in the bottom one per cent of the population and within the statutory definition of mental handicap. Mr Justice O’Hara also described McGothigan’s school years and home life as “difficult”.
Turning to the victim, Mr Justice O’Hara said Mr O’Neill was a “very bright and popular teenager” who had experienced some personal problems in the years before his death. The judge said that despite this, Mr O’Neill was “beginning to turn a corner” which included forming a relationship with a new girlfriend.
Saying these positive steps “makes his death even harder on the family”, Mr Justice O’Hara said it was understandable that despite his troubles in the past, they were having “great difficulty dealing with their loss”.
Before passing sentence, the judge said a probation report compiled on McGothigan suggested he posed a high likelihood of reoffending, which was linked to “instabilities in his life” including being homeless, a lack of a “positive support network” and issues with alcohol and drugs.
Mr Justice O’Hara also revealed that the probation officer concluded McGothigan was not assessed as meeting the criteria of significant risk of serious harm to others.
McGothigan was then handed a five-year sentence – half of which will be served in custody, with the remaining two and a half years spent on licence when he is released from prison.
Speaking on behalf of Kevin O’Neill’s family, his sister Meghan said that while they expected the sentence, it is not what they wanted. She also expressed the hope that the family could begin the grieving process.
She said: “On behalf of my family, we would like to say thanks for the support we have received from the community through this hard time. The family has been through hell for the past 16 months since we lost Kevin and our lives will never be the same.
“It has been extremely tough but we have stuck together and pulled close, and this has made us stronger.”
Paying tribute to her brother, the 22-year old Co Antrim woman continued: “Kevin was an amazing, funny and lovable person. He was very witty and humorous and imagining the rest of our lives without him feels unbearable – but that has become our reality.
“His death has left us all with our own life sentence.”
Reacting to the sentence, Meghan said: “While we are hurt and upset, he (McGothigan) does not deserve a place in our lives, so we tend not to lose any sleep over him. After all, what we do now and how we react to this is what defines us as people.
“About the sentence today ... we feel that the sentence handed down to him (McGothigan) was what we expected, but not what we wanted. Obviously as a family we would want to throw away the key, but that is not the case. Knowing he will be locked away from the public for a while longer gives us peace of mind that he cannot reoffend during that time.
“Nothing will bring Kevin back, so we just want to move on as a family and try and start the grieving process.”