A bodybuilder, who put his own life in danger trying to save a drowning man he’d earlier fought, has been jailed for a total of nine months for causing his unlawful death.

Antrim Crown Court Judge Gordon Kerr QC told 26-year-old Darren Joseph Casey on Monday his was a “highly exceptional case” and that the death of 21-year-old Ballymena man Owen Gerard McKeown was the “tragic result” of his own decision to jump into the River Bann.

Casey, from Kilrea, in Co Londonderry, who admitted the manslaughter of Mr McKeown, on 5 May 2012, was initially sentenced to 15 months, added to, consecutively, was a previous three-month suspended term.

While Casey will serve half of his sentence in prison, with the remainder on licenced parole, because of time already served, he should be due for release next month.

In his sentencing remarks Judge Kerr said that “this is a highly exceptional case” as he was “bound by the agreed facts before me as to the degree of culpability of the defendant.

“On those facts the defendant was struck by Owen McKeown…the defendant reacted…and in so doing, accepts he over-reacted ….even so the evidence shows that any injuries he caused were medically insignificant and would have played no part in the death of the deceased.

“Death was the result of Mr McKeown running, no doubt in fear of further assault, and then jumping into the river,” added Judge Kerr.

Earlier this month, prosecuting QC Terence Mooney told the court that Casey had stripped off and jumped into the river after McKeown, and while it was accepted he did not intend his death, by his unlawful act of striking Mr McKeown, and his guilty plea to manslaughter, he accepted responsibility for his death.

Defence QC Martin O’Rourke said it was a tragic and unfortunate case, in which a remorseful Casey had put his own life in danger. Mr O’Rourke said Casey accepted his assault on Mr McKeown went behind self-defence, giving rise to the unlawful act leading to his death.

Mr Mooney had told the court, Mr McKeown, who’d travelled to Kilrea from his Dunclug Estate home in Ballymena with two others, collected Casey, before going to the River Bann near the Agivey Road, Patterson’s Lane area, a well-known drinking spot for young men.

However, they were not there for drink, but to collect steroid drugs which both Casey and McKeown used as part of their body-building regime. As they were climbing over a fence, Mr McKeown allegedly struck Casey, who punched him to the ground, where he continued his attack.

Mr Mooney said a group of canoeists heard wind-blown voices coming from the river bank, and initially thought they might come under attack, but then saw a fully-clothed man jump into the river.

“He swam out from the bank, and then disappeared under the water. Another male then stripped off his clothing and also entered the water in an apparent attempt to rescue the first male,” said Mr Mooney.

Unable to save Mr McKeown, Casey returned to the bank, dressed and left the area in a red car.
However, before his rescue attempt, Casey was heard telling Mr McKeown to get “back to the river bank”, that he had “proved his point”.

Mr Mooney said the canoeists had watched as Mr McKeown appeared to “tread water before turning on his back and disappearing….Casey called for help to persons up the hill……before removing his clothing … swam to the place where Mr McKeown was last seen and ducked under the water’.

“When he resurfaced, he called out, ‘he’s gone, we’ve lost him’,” added the lawyer.

A post mortem report on Mr McKeown, whose cause of death was drowning, also indicated that he may well have been under the influence of drugs at the time.

“By his plea the defendant accepted that he is responsible for the death of Owen McKeown. It may be inferred that his behaviour caused such fear in the deceased that he believed the only course of escape from the defendant was to go into the river,” said Counsel.

“It must also be accepted that the defendant did not intend the death of Mr McKeown.”

In his defence, Mr O’Rourke said that Casey’s version of events could be independently corroborated by statements from two men who had travelled from Ballymena with Mr McKeown.

They indicated that as Casey was climbing over a fence to get the steroid drugs, “the deceased, for no apparent reason, struck him and he responded”. McKeown was knocked to the ground, where Casey continued with the assault.

“That response was in excess of defending himself, which constitutes, and gives rise to the unlawful act in this case,” added the lawyer.

Mr O’Rourke also indicated that none of the canoeists reported Casey’s calls as being threatening to Mr McKeown when he was in the river, and were “in terms to get him back out of the water”.

The defence lawyer said Casey had followed Mr McKeown into the river, “in an attempt to redeem the situation and put his own life at risk in an attempt to save him”.

Casey, he added, had shown genuine, sincere and deep remorse, and had later gone with his father to police, “to do the right thing”, and was so extremely upset at the death of Mr McKeown, could not be properly interviewed and was admitted to Holywell Hospital for a time.

Mr O’Rourke said there were a number of mitigating factors, including Casey’s guilty plea, and that when he followed him into the river, his “actions were spontaneous and in response of the actions taken by the deceased”.

Ciaran Shiels solicitor from Madden & Finucane said:

“This was an important case in which we were today able to successfully challenge a Probation Assessment that our client Darren Casey posed a significant risk of harm to the public by the use of defence expert psychological and psychiatric evidence.

“There has to be an urgent review in respect of the practice employed by Probation Services to make risk assessments concerning defendants at conferences attended only by themselves and the PSNI at which defence lawyers are excluded.”

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