Kildare man who wanted to change plea from ‘guilty’ to ‘not guilty’ over damage to wind farm site loses appeal

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Kildare man who wanted to change plea from ‘guilty’ to ‘not guilty’  over damage to wind farm site loses appeal

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A man jailed for damaging equipment used to build a wind farm in rural Roscommon has lost an appeal over attempts to change his plea from 'guilty' to 'not guilty'. 

Conor Judge (31), with an address in Maynooth, Co Kildare, had pleaded guilty at Roscommon Circuit Criminal Court to two counts of theft and one count of criminal damage at a worksite connected to the construction of a windfarm near Arigna, north Roscommon on October 3, 2010. 

Judge unsuccessfully sought to change his plea from 'guilty' to 'not guilty' before he was sentenced to three years imprisonment by Judge Keenan Johnson on December 16, 2016. 

Refusing his application to change his guilty plea, the Circuit Court judge said the accused was an “unreliable witness” who had told “blatant lies” on a number of occasions. 

The Court of Appeal upheld the refusal to set aside Judge’s guilty plea today and upheld his three year sentence. 

Giving judgment in the three-judge court, Mr Justice John Edwards said the thefts related to an excavating bucket, a quick hitch and hydraulic ram at a worksite connected to the construction of a wind farm. The criminal damage related to damage done to the excavator in the unsuccessful attempt to remove further parts of it. 

Judge was found at the scene and initially gave a false name to gardaí but upon realising he had been recognised by one of them, he elected to cooperate.

He was arrested and sent for forward for trial in the Circuit Court where he pleaded guilty while represented by solicitor and counsel.

After he pleaded guilty, Judge disputed that the damage allegedly caused amounted to STG£18,000. In what is known as a 'Newton hearing', The Circuit Court judge indicated he was satisfied that the damage was in the five figure range i.e in excess of €10,000 but adjourned sentencing to a later date.

In the meantime, Judge changed legal team. A consultant psychiatrist found indications of narcissism and a tendency towards paranoia but that Judge was fully fit to plead.

Judge then alleged he had been "coerced" into pleading guilty by his former layers, that his former barrister told him he was "friends with the Judge, that they had spoken about the case and that if I pleaded guilty to something that I did not do that I would get away with a fine". Both Judge's former solicitor and counsel "vehemently denied" his allegations.

When asked why he did not plead not guilty when the charges were read to him, he said he was "half afraid" and felt "like cattle being run up a crush".

According to him, he "firmly believed he had no choice but to plead guilty". He said he was told there was only one way out and if he opened his mouth he'd "be gone away in the back of a van".

At the Newton hearing, he said he was sitting behind his barrister and tried on numerous occasions to suggest different questions he should ask, but was dismissed on every occasion. He said he repeatedly tried to contact his solicitor but was "fobbed off".

Other allegations made by Judge against his former lawyers were to the effect that they were "in cahoots" with the Gardai.

It was noteworthy, Mr Justice Edwards said that Judge also made allegations against an investigating garda that she had made "inappropriate sexual advances" towards him as an "inducement" to plead guilty, before later withdrawing those allegations and admitting he had lied on oath in that regard.

His present lawyers submitted that Judge was a vulnerable individual suffering from a mental disability by reason of being narcissistic and paranoid and that his previous lawyers should have been more cautious with him. They urged the Court of Appeal to vacate his guilty plea in the interests of justice.

Mr Justice Edwards said the Court of Appeal dismissed “without hesitation” any suggestion that Judge’s narcissism and tendency towards paranoia had anything to do with his decision to plead guilty. 

He said the evidence was clear that Judge was not suffering from any kind of mental illness, or mental disorder within the meaning of the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act. He was fit to plead, fit to instruct counsel, and able to receive and comprehend advice from his legal representatives. 

It was telling that when he first intimated a desire to change his pleas, he made no complaint about the service he had received from his legal representatives. It was only at a later stage, “presumably when he had been advised that he had to show good and substantial grounds, that he made a plethora of allegations against his lawyers, all of which the trial judge, correctly in our view, was satisfied to dismiss without foundation”. 

He said Judge fell well short of the type of situation where an accused ought to be allowed change his plea. He was at all times legally represented and advised by an experienced solicitor and counsel. He has failed to show good and substantial reason why his pleas should be set aside. 

Mr Justice Edwards, who sat with President of the Court of Appeal Mr Justice George Birmingham and Mr Justice John Hedigan, said the Circuit Court judge was correct to treat the testimony with the highest degree of scepticism and incredulity in circumstances where he had admitted to lying on oath in several respects. 

Judge also lost an appeal against the severity of his sentence with the Court of Appeal holding that it was “correct and proportionate”.