A convicted sex offender who sexually assaulted a young girl was yesterday handed a three-year prison sentence suspended for three years.
Robin Armstrong (44), of Ferryquay Place, Coleraine, Co Londonderry, pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual assault and one charge of inciting a child under 13 to engage in sexual activity.
The offences took place on dates between January 1, 2013 and June, 30, 2016 when the girl was aged between eight and 11.
Prosecution counsel John Orr QC told Belfast Crown Court that Armstrong had a relevant conviction when he was convicted of sexual assault at Antrim Crown Court in 2018 and received a two-year probation order. Defence counsel Alan Kane QC told Belfast Recorder Judge Stephen Fowler QC that Armstrong had recently "suffered a heart attack and required surgical intervention by way of a stent".
He added that had this case been dealt with at the same time as the case in 2018 "this may have led to a different outcome" in terms of sentencing.
"The factual reality is that he received a two-year probation order and that has been satisfactorily completed and he has made considerable progress. Probation is not some sort of easy option.
"It is my respectful submission that an immediate custodial sentence is not the only possible outcome."
The senior defence counsel said it was open to the court to take a course such as a "suspended sentence left hanging over his head" to allow him to sustain the progress that has been made with the Probation Service.
"This is a real rehabilitative process and would be of benefit to the wider public and which would satisfy the protection of the public."
Judge Fowler said he had read a victim impact statement which stated that the victim had suffered "psychological upset" as a result of the sexual assaults on her, she had attended sexual counselling over a number of years and also suffers from "self image confidence problems and struggles to cope with these problems".
The Belfast Recorder said there were a several aggravating features including the numerous assaults, the time period over which they occurred, the age of the victim when the abuse first started and the defendant's relevant conviction from 2018.
In mitigation, Judge Fowler said he was taking into account the defendant's plea of guilty which had spared the victim from having to give evidence against him.
He said he was also taking into account Armstrong's "genuine victim empathy and remorse" expressed in the pre-sentence report along with his well documented learning difficulties.
The court heard that from the age of 10 to 15, Armstrong attended a school for children with special educational needs.
He was assessed as having low intelligence and had the literacy and numeracy skills of a seven-year-old.
The judge noted that the defendant had successfully completed a course with the Probation Service and there had been no further offending since.
The Belfast Recorder stated that the case before him "was more serious" than that dealt with in 2018 and it was open to him to impose an immediate term of imprisonment.
Given the delay in bringing the case to court and the defendant's successful rehabilitative work with probation, Judge Fowler said there were "exceptional circumstances" that would justify him in suspending the 36-month sentence for a period of three years.
He told Armstrong that if he stayed out of trouble "that will be the end of this matter", but if he engaged in this type of behaviour again, he would be brought back to court and could be jailed for three years consecutive to any other term of imprisonment imposed.
Armstrong was made the subject of Sexual Offences Prevention Order for five years and was barred from working with children and vulnerable adults.