A Kildare man who left two pedestrians seriously injured when he drove onto a busy footpath before “calmly” leaving the scene has been given an eight-and-a-half-year sentence.
Paul Connolly (37) was under the influence of drugs and was driving his young child to school when his car mounted the footpath, leaving one young law student with a “catastrophic” brain injury.
Connolly, of Cregg Court, Kilmeague, Robertstown, Co Kildare, has 215 previous convictions including 14 for dangerous driving and three for hit-and-runs. He admitted taking cocaine and tablets the night before.
He was on a 25-year driving ban at the time and had been released from prison a month earlier.
Connolly pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to dangerous driving causing serious bodily harm to Mr Igoe and Mr Dhala at Coolmine Road, Coolmine on May 1, 2018.
He also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of drugs; possession of cannabis; failing to remain at the scene; failing to offer assistance; failing to alert gardaí; as well as driving without insurance or a driving licence on the same occasion.
Judge Melanie Greally suspended the final 18 months of the sentence today, giving Connolly credit for his guilty plea, his remorse and his limited cooperation. She said she also took into account Connolly’s long-standing addiction issues.
At a previous hearing, the court heard how Connolly “undertook” a line of traffic stopped at a railway barrier, before suddenly swerving onto the pavement where he first hit Michael Igoe (54) and continued driving to hit student Francis Dhala (19), causing him “catastrophic” injuries.
Witnesses described him going back onto the road, doing a U-turn and driving “calmly” from the scene with a smashed windscreen. He was followed by a driving instructor who kept in touch with gardaí until they were able to intercept him.
The court heard Connolly told initially gardaí he thought he had hit “a bush.” He later said he had taken his eyes off the road for a second and didn't know he had hit anyone.
Mr Igoe sustained a badly-fractured ankle, bruising, torn shoulder muscles and concussion from a bang to his head. He underwent surgery and the insertion of plates and screws in his ankle. He continues to have a limp.
Judge Greally noted that Mr Igoe’s victim impact report was “very understated” but said he had no doubt experienced a significant deterioration in his health and well-being.
Mr Dhala suffered a severe and traumatic brain injury and underwent multiple surgeries, spending over three months in hospital. He is currently spending weekdays at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dun Laoghaire.
The court heard Mr Dhala has done well since the accident but suffers ongoing issues such as cognitive defects and short-term memory problems. He has recently regained the ability to speak, eat and drink normally but is not expected to return to his full previous level of cognitive functioning.
Judge Greally said this had serious future consequences for Mr Dhala who was studying law and attended court in a wheelchair with his family.
She wished both Mr Igoe and Mr Dhala a full recovery and said that she hoped Francis Dhala continues with his chosen career in law, adding “perhaps one day we will see him in this building”.
The judge also noted the serious trauma caused to Mr Dhala’s family, particularly his sister Grace who was with him at the time, and the fact that the family was told multiple times that Francis was in danger of dying or of remaining in a vegetative state.
She said the family was in need of ongoing psychological support and had incurred hospital bills of over €100,000.
Defence counsel, Martin O'Rourke SC, handed in a letter of apology from Connolly and a psychological report into court.
He said Connolly admitted taking cocaine and self-medicating with street benzodiazepine as he had been on anti-depressants but could no longer afford them. He said his client had a difficult family background and started drinking as a 14-year-old, with most of his convictions being drink-related.
Judge Greally said there were “extreme’ aggravating factors in the case, including the “inherent danger” of passing a line of cars on the inside, then mounting a footpath exposing numerous pedestrians to danger, added to the fact that Connolly then accelerated along the path.
She also listed the fact that Connolly left the scene, was intoxicated at the time, and was driving his own daughter who was described by witnesses as in a state of “considerable distress”.
The eight-and-a-half-year sentence was backdated to May 1 last year. Connolly was ordered to be of good behaviour and abide by the supervision of the Probation Services for 18 months on his release.
Garda Emma Gilmore told Diarmuid Collins BL, prosecuting, that Mr Igoe and Mr Dhala were walking separately towards Coolmine train station. The railway barrier was down across the road at the time and there was a queue of traffic stopped at the barrier.
A motorist stopped in traffic described hearing a car revving behind him. He said the car began to overtake him, not on the usual side but on the inside. He said he heard a bang and saw the car moving on the footpath where it hit a boy before going back onto the road.
Another witness - a pedestrian - said she saw the car, not going extremely fast, mount the footpath, where it seemed to speed up before hitting an older man and then a boy. A witness described Mr Dhala “flying into the air” after being hit by the car.
Mr Igoe, who was the first person hit by Connolly, said he did not remember the incident, just waking up in hospital afterwards.
Mr Dhala was on his way to Maynooth University where he was a student and was walking with his sister Grace and a friend. He was so severely injured he was unable to give a statement to gardaí.
Grace said she did not hear a car coming but felt “wind” as it passed her, she then saw her brother lying face down as the car went back onto the road and continued driving. She ran to her brother as their friend phoned an ambulance. She then noticed there was another man lying on the road.
Another motorist at the scene noticed the car had done a U-turn before the railway barrier and was driving back down the road. He said it was not driving erratically and the driver's actions seemed very calm. He said the car's windscreen was about 90% smashed.
He tried to block the path of the car but it drove around him and away from the scene. He said he could not see the driver’s face but saw a child screaming in the back of the car. He took a photograph of the car with his phone.
The pedestrian witness said the man was driving “weirdly slow” and shaking his head as he looked out the window as he drove back.
A motoring instructor, Mark Murphy, followed Connolly from the scene and kept gardaí updated as to his movements. He described how he was frightened by how calmly Connolly was driving.
When gardaí intercepted him, Connolly identified himself and told them he had “hit a bush” outside the train station.
He passed a breath test at the scene, but a blood test later revealed the presence of cocaine and benzodiazepine. A small amount of cannabis was found mixed with tobacco in his possession.
Connolly told gardaí during interview that he had taken his eyes off the road for a second while changing radio station and talking to his child. He said he did not know he had hit anyone.
He later said he had been picking something up off the ground and that he thought the windscreen had been smashed by hitting the kerb. He said he had been up the night before and had taken cocaine, as well as a street form of Valium that he used to calm himself.
Connolly told gardaí that the witness who said they saw him do a U-turn was lying.
Connolly's 215 previous convictions include 14 dangerous driving, three for hit-and-run, eight for driving while intoxicated, as well as burglary, theft, criminal damage, assault, fraud and forgery.
He had received numerous driving bans since he was a teenager and was on a 25-year ban imposed in October 2017 at the time of the offences.
Mr O'Rourke said Connolly had written a letter of remorse and also expressed remorse in a psychological report before the court. He asked the court to accept his remorse as genuine.
He asked Judge Greally to consider that this was not a “sustained or prolonged” piece of bad driving and did not involve excessive speed. He submitted the fact that Connolly had left the scene did not increase the harm caused to the victims and they were not left unattended.
Counsel submitted that most of Connolly's previous convictions were drink-related and said Connolly had only been released from prison about a month before this offence. He has been in custody since his arrest.
Mr O'Rourke said Connolly had grown up in a traumatic and difficult family environment. He began drinking at 14 years old and was serving sentences by the time he was 18 years old. The death of his father when Connolly was 24 years old had a huge effect on him.