10-year minimum sentence for Belfast man who stabbed friend to death during 'horseplay'
An east Belfast man was yesterday told he will spend a minimum of 10 years of a life sentence in prison for the murder of his 29-year-old friend.
Kenneth Cowan (30) of Titania Street, off the Cregagh Road, pleaded guilty in December to the murder of Brian Burke in an upstairs room of his home and was handed an automatic life sentence.
The "senseless" attack took place at the Titania Street house Cowan shared with another man and the pair, along with Mr Burke, had spent most of Saturday, April 7, 2018 together in the terraced property.
Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland said: "It had all the hallmarks of a relaxing afternoon and evening, with them listening to music and drinking beer.
"Some cannabis was smoked by Cowan, but not by Brian Burke, as has been confirmed by a toxicology report."
The toxicology report was carried out on Cowan around 14 hours after the fatal stabbing, and although no alcohol was detected, tests showed the presence of cannabis.
The court heard that the level of alcohol found in Mr Burke at the time of his death was 190 milligramme per 100 millilitres of blood, around two-and-a-half times the legal limit for driving.
The friend who shared the house with Cowan later told police that all three had been upstairs.
He said Cowan and Mr Burke were "wrestling on the bed" and it appeared to him that it was "horseplay".
The man told police that he then heard Mr Burke scream out: "He has stabbed me."
Cowan had told police that he went into another room and got a box cutter he used at work and stabbed his friend once in the chest.
However, Crown counsel Ciaran Murphy QC said that Cowan had gone to the ground floor of the property, retrieved a 12cm knife, went back upstairs and stabbed Mr Burke.
The court was told that following the stabbing, Cowan put a pillow under Mr Burke's head and then rang 999 for an amublance.
Cowan's housemate told police that after the stabbing the defendant was in a "distressed state", but the emergency operator who took the 999 call said that he did not sound distressed to her. She told police that Cowan admitted to her that he had stabbed his friend.
The court heard police and an ambulance arrived at the scene in Titania Street and the handle of the knife was found upstairs, but no blade could be traced.
Mr Burke was rushed to hospital, but pronounced dead at 1.15am the next day.
A post-mortem by Professor Jack Crane found the victim had a single stab wound to the left side of his chest, first piercing the lung before entering the wall of the heart.
During his autopsy Professor Crane found the 12cm knife blade embedded in the chest.
He concluded that there was extensive bleeding from the stab wound to the heart which was "responsible for his fairly rapid death". In his opinion, said Professor Crane, "no more than moderate force was required" to inflict the fatal stab wound.
After his arrest Cowan told police during an interview that he and Mr Burke had been "wrestling" in the upstairs bedroom.
He claimed that Mr Burke had been holding him down and would not let go and said that he kept shouting at him "get off me, get off me".
He said that when he eventually got out of the hold, he went next door and got his box cutter before going back into the bedroom and stabbing Mr Burke.
Cowan later admitted that during the incident "the red mist" came down on him, adding that he "should have left the house and went for a walk to cool down".
Cowan - the father of a three-year-old-child - who has convictions here and Finland for drug offences - was not assessed as posing a danger to the public in the future.
Victim impact reports said that Mr Burke's murder had had a "very serious effect" on his mother Deena Kitson and a profound effect on his friends.
Defence QC Gavan Duffy said Cowan recognised the suffering he had caused to the deceased's family and friends.
He told the court his actions on that night were described by Cowan's family and friends as "totally out of character".
Mr Duffy said: "Mr Cowan wishes he could undo his actions of that night.
"He fully appreciates and accepts the impact of his actions on the family of the deceased and places himself before the mercy of the court."
Handing Cowan a minimum of 10 years behind bars before he could apply for parole, Judge David McFarland, said: "This was a senseless taking of life of a young man and it is natural that family and friends will struggle to rationalise what has happened."
The judge said the aggravating factors were the impact on the victim's family, the consumption of drugs and alcohol and the use of a knife to stab Mr Burke to death.
"It is not a case of Cowan carrying a knife and then using it," said Judge McFarland in his sentencing remarks.
"However, it must be understood that those who would arm themselves with weapons such as knives to somehow give themselves an advantage in any scuffle or fight or to frighten their opponent must expect receive additional punishment.
"The use of weapons, particularly knives, will always significantly increase the risk of serious or fatal injury."
Following the sentencing, Detective Chief Inspector Peter McKenna said that Mr Burke had been an innocent victim of a brutal attack.
He said "Brian was a much-loved friend and family member who helped out in his local jujutsu club and loved martial arts, music and skateboarding.
"Brian's life was brought to a brutal end and his mum Deena and two brothers Michael and John have been left devastated by the murder."
Det Chief Insp McKenna said that Cowan had shown no remorse for his actions.
He added: "While he is now behind bars, nothing can ever ease the pain and loss that he has caused."