Belfast Telegraph

Duo admit killing Armagh man left in a coma for two years after battering

By Michael Donnelly

Two men have admitted the unlawful killing of a Co Armagh man who survived in a vegetative coma for two years before dying in a nursing home on June 12, 2012.

Royal Irish Regiment soldier Michael Wilson (23), from Marlacoo Road, Tandragee, and 24-year-old tree surgeon Gareth McKinney, originally from Charles Park, Portadown, had been accused of the murder of 32-year-old Lee Smyth.

Wilson also pleaded guilty to robbing Mr Smyth of a cigarette tin after he was left unconscious in a pool of blood following a brutal attack on June 6, 2012.

After an adjournment as the Armagh Crown Court trial was about to enter its second day, defence lawyer Paul Ramsey QC, for McKinney, asked for his client to be rearraigned.

Mr Arthur Harvey QC said he would have a similar application on behalf of Wilson.

As the murder charge was put to them again, both men continued to deny the murder, but in turn pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Mr Smyth, who suffered a catastrophic brain injury from which he never recovered.

Prosecution QC Terence Mooney told judge Mr Justice Weir and the jury that he had considered the pleas to the lesser charge and that in view of the evidence, he was prepared to accept them.

On Tuesday he had told the court the attack was a result of the all too distressingly familiar story of young men emboldened by drink, who met and, for whatever reason, then engaged in gratuitous violence.

Mr Mooney claimed that both McKinney and Wilson had engaged in a totally unwarranted attack on a defenceless Mr Smyth.

The court heard that Mr Smyth was found in the early hours in the Folly area of Armagh city by a woman out walking her dog.

Although he survived in a coma for just over two years, his family made the agonising decision, based on medical advice as he continued to deteriorate, to withhold further treatment.

Mr Mooney had also claimed that Mr Smyth had been treated "like a trampoline", with his attackers using their "shod feet" to jump on him as he lay prone, motionless and defenceless on the ground. He also alleged a former girlfriend of McKinney would contradict his assertion that he was not involved in the attack, or Wilson's claim that while present, he played no role.

However, in her evidence Lindsay Bell revealed that it had been Mr Smyth who "went for" Wilson, throwing the first punch as "they squared up to each other".

Although McKinney joined in the fight after she had asked him to intervene and stop it, she added that Mr Smyth was punched and only kicked "on his body".

Later, Ms Bell also agreed with Mr Harvey that even after Mr Smyth's unfortunate death, Wilson "still did not appreciate it was connected with what happened on that path on that day".

Both Wilson and McKinney will be sentenced next month, and while McKinney was released on continuing bail Mr Justice Weir said it in no way could be taken as indication that he would not inevitably face a custodial sentence.

BACKGROUND

The court heard that in the hours before he was fatally injured, Mr Smyth had been involved in two other disputes. On one occasion police found him brandishing a stick as he confronted a youth. He was told to drop it and go home, and appeared to do so. He was also in a temper when he went looking for those who had thrown solar lights from his girlfriend's garden at her house. He returned to the house and tried to arm himself with a machete and kitchen knife, but his girlfriend stopped him.

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