I’ll begin this piece with a thought experiment:
Suppose your neighbour has a large dog. A dangerous breed, but usually placid. Unknown to you, the dog contracts rabies. One night, when you unwisely leave a door open, the dog comes in to your home, and, as rabid dogs sometimes do, moves to attack a member of your family. You pick up the nearest weapon to hand, hoping to stop the dog. In sheer panic, as the dog comes at you, you stab it. It runs outside, and dies.
Your neighbours, naturally, will be very upset. But have you committed a crime? Of course not. Nobody would ever charge you with one. You acted, perhaps, with excessive force compared to what was strictly necessary. But you felt threatened, and were acting only to defend yourself.
Which brings me to the case and sentencing, this morning, of one Dean Kerrie. RTE have the basic facts:
A 21-year-old man has been jailed for three and-a-half years for the manslaughter of a young fisherman in Co Waterford in 2018.
Dean Kerrie was 17 when he stabbed 25-year-old Jack Power in the chest on 26 July 2018 after Mr Power entered his house in the early hours of the morning.
Mr Power threw a rock through the front window and went into the house at around 3.30am to confront Kerrie, believing the younger man had earlier caused damage to his car.
Kerrie stabbed him once in the chest and Mr Power collapsed outside the house and died.
Mr Kerrie, of course, killed a human being. Not a dog. When the Gardai arrived on scene, they found him sobbing for what he had done. It is right that the law values human life more than canine life. But does that make sense in this case? Not for me.
The Judge, Paul McDermott, in his sentencing speech, declared that Mr. Kerrie had used “excessive” force. He criticised Mr. Kerrie – and this is a direct quote – for not being capable “of identifying what alternative course of action he could have taken.” Well, honestly, Judge, that makes two of us.
In this case, Mr. Kerrie was in his own home. The sadly deceased person entered that home by breaking the front window. He also attacked Mr. Kerrie’s mother. He was larger and stronger than Mr. Kerrie, and older, too: 25 to 17. The assailant was not armed, but then, neither is a rabid dog. He was simply bigger and stronger than the people whose home he had broken into to attack.
Mr. Kerrie’s actions here are distinguishable from how he might act in the case of a rabid dog…. How, exactly? He had – and could not have been expected to have – any idea of how much damage his attacker might do with his fists, armed or not. He knew only that he had to defend himself, and his mother. He was 17. He picked up the nearest weapon, and used it.
There is one important difference, though, between the rabid dog scenario and this one: The dog has no responsibility for its own actions. It is rabid. It is sick. Even if it was fully healthy, it does not understand human laws about who may, and may not, be bitten or killed.
That cannot be said of the dead assailant in this case. He deliberately broke into someone’s home to do them harm. He therefore has far more responsibility for his own death than the rabid dog ever could have.
And yet, Mr. Kerrie gets a severe punishment for defending himself from a rational and conscious human being, when he would have gotten a medal had he defended himself from an irrational and rabid canine. Despite being in, functionally, an identical situation in terms of the threat to himself, and his family.
We are supposed to call this “justice”. Perhaps you can, dear reader. But this writer cannot.
All of this occurred, by the way – the sentencing, I mean – in the same week where two yobbos who deliberately attacked a Garda and broke his nose got fully suspended sentences. In the same week where a chap who had tens of thousands of images, for his masturbatory pleasure, of children being raped, received a suspended sentence.
The sophisticated centrist take on this sentence, of course, is that perhaps the learned Judge had access to more facts than we, the plebian public, do. After all, the state and the DPP wanted to charge Kerrie with murder, not manslaughter. The Judge actually sentenced him for a lesser offence, as determined by the Jury, who also bear their share of responsibility. But that’s all well and good, only if you’re someone who looks at the record of the Irish courts and thinks “yeah, they usually get it right”.
This incident, by the way, also occurred in a country where we have a law explicitly authorizing the use of force to defend your home from criminal intruders who intend to do you harm. Just not “excessive” force, apparently.
What is the definition of too much force?
If the assailant had lost an eye, but kept his life, is that sufficient force? If he had his spinal cord severed, but kept his life, is that too much? Are there rules written down somewhere about precisely how much force we can use in a threatening situation, and, if so, why are these not taught in school, so that we might all be prepared?
It is very easy for Judge McDermott to sit, after the event, and pronounce that the force used was excessive. He was not there, after all. Perhaps that’s why he’s gotten this one – at least in my opinion – so horribly, awfully, wrong.