Belfast Telegraph

Death of coma man two years after assault 'tragic case that should not have happened'

By Ashleigh McDonald

The death of a Co Armagh man two years after he was involved in a fight after a chance encounter was a "tragic case" that should never have happened, a High Court judge has said.

Mr Justice Weir made the comment after details surrounding the death of Lee Smyth were outlined in court yesterday. Mr Smyth spent two years in a coma after he was found lying severely injured beside the Folly River in Armagh in the early hours of June 6, 2010 by a woman walking her dog.

The 32-year-old victim died in 2012 after his family made the heartbreaking decision, based on medical advice, to withhold further treatment after he spent two years in a nursing home.

Michael Wilson, a 23-year-old soldier from Marlacoo Road in Tandragee, and 24-year old tree surgeon Gareth McKinney, from Charles Park in Portadown, both appeared in court yesterday.

They were initially charged with murdering Mr Smyth, but as their trial was about to enter its second day earlier this year they were re-arraigned, and each pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter.

Crown prosecutor Terence Mooney QC told yesterday's hearing about Mr Smyth's movements leading up to a fatal confrontation with Wilson and McKinney.

Mr Smyth – a heroin addict – had attended a party with his girlfriend on the evening of June 5, 2010.

In the early hours of June 6 an argument broke out at the party and after assaulting a fellow reveller, Mr Smyth was persuaded to go home by his girlfriend. Later that morning the woman's home was attacked and an object was thrown at the property, causing Mr Smyth to get out of bed with the intention of "pursuing those" he suspected.

The prosecutor said Mr Smyth returned home and "tried to arm himself with a knife".

The court heard that around 4.35am police were called to an area close to the Folly River where they saw two men, one of whom was Mr Smyth. The officers separated the two men, taking one home and telling Mr Smyth to go home.

At around 6am police were again called to the Folly River following a report of an assault and a man lying on the ground. The seriously injured Mr Smyth was subsequently rushed to hospital.

Mr Mooney told the court that a female friend who was with Wilson and McKinney said that as they were making their way home from a party, Wilson was approached by Mr Smyth, who "provoked" a physical confrontation.

As Mr Smyth and Wilson – who didn't know each other –began fighting, the "upset and frightened" female friend asked McKinney to intervene and stop the fight, but rather than stop the fight McKinney joined in.

They left Mr Smyth lying prone on the ground and didn't seek any medical attention for him.

Mr Mooney said it was to the woman's credit that when she heard of Mr Smyth's death two years after the assault, she "provided information which led to both of the defendants being made amenable to the courts". The prosecutor also spoke of the impact Mr Smyth's death has had on his family, speaking of the "harrowing situation that was prolonged and difficult for the family and siblings of Mr Smyth, which undoubtedly caused them great distress".

Defence barrister Arthur Harvey QC, acting on behalf of Wilson, said: "It is accepted that what happened that evening led to devastating consequences, not only for the deceased, but also his immediate family who were left to deal with a situation, which I am sure was heart-wrenching, over a period of time."

Pointing out that Mr Smyth initiated the fight with his client by "aggressively approaching Wilson" for no reason, Mr Harvey said Wilson was drunk.

After hearing from both the Crown and the defence, Mr Justice Weir said: "This is a tragic case because none of this need ever have happened."

Both men were remanded in custody and will be sentenced on a charge of manslaughter next week.

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