A County Tyrone man who murdered father-of-four Pat Ward in Clogher whilst his partner was found guilty of manslaughter, have been sentenced at Dungannon Crown Court.
They appeared together in the dock for sentencing separated by custody staff while the victim’s wife, parents and other family members sat directly behind them in the public gallery.
Niall Cox (28) McCrea Park, Clogher initially denied murder, but changed his plea leaving his partner Karen Marie McDonald (37) of the same address to stand trial alone.
She was cleared of murdering Mr Ward on February 9, 2019 but convicted of manslaughter following a two week trial earlier this year.
The thirty-year-old victim’s lifeless, half-naked body was discovered in an alleyway having been dragged there and abandoned by Cox.
Pathologist Professor Jack Crane said Mr Ward was “beaten, kicked, stabbed and struck a number of times to the head with a heavy, blunt elongated object … Extensive blood loss, combined with head and chest injuries were responsible for rapid but not immediate death”.
A number of weapons including a machete and a barbell were used to inflict “gratuitous violence” on Mr Ward.
Mr Justice Fowler began by commending the victim’s widow Ellie Ward for, “the composed and compelling way you gave evidence. No-one could be anything but moved. What you have had to cope with would break many people. I can only imagine how difficult this was and still is. It has impacted every aspect of your life, your children’s and wider family. No sentence I can impose will replace the void of much-loved husband, father, son and brother. I can only hope the concluding of these proceedings brings some level of closure.”
Cox, having pleaded guilty to murder, was previously sentenced to life imprisonment and Judge Fowler was tasked with setting the minimum term to be served entirely.
He said the “gratuitous violence and degrading of the victim, being stripped, dragged and left in an alleyway before his death”, pitched sentencing at a higher starting point.
A set of suggested facts put forward by Cox was rejected by the court, and “he was given the opportunity to be cross-examined on his own account, but declined. There is no basis of plea, instead only the instructions provided by Cox to his defence which were wholly self-serving.”
He continued: “I am satisfied he engaged in a brutal attack using a number of weapons. I am satisfied the viciousness and persistence of the attack meant his intention was to kill the victim. I am not satisfied he acted in self-defence, nor was he provoked to any great degree … The only mitigator was the guilty plea, which came late and after a trial date had been fixed.”
It was noted Cox was on bail for serious matters at the time of the murder and has not responded to previous sentences.
The consumption of alcohol and drugs were rejected as reasons for his behaviour.
He was ordered to serve 20 years imprisonment.
It addition Cox was found to be dangerous and presents a significant risk to the public, which may impact on his eventual release date
Turning to McDonald, Judge Fowler said: “I cannot be satisfied to the required standards she attacked Mr Ward. While there may be suspicion there is no evidence under oath. She did lift Mr Ward’s legs as he was dragged from the house, then dropped them. She told police her actions were to help him get up and go home. I am completely satisfied that was a lie which the jury rightly rejected, which was designed to distance her from what occurred that night.
“She well knew Mr Ward was beaten with weapons and stabbed and left critically injured. She and Cox removed him from the house. She knew, and in my view, observed the vicious assault on him and was aware of his injuries. It is to her shame she did nothing to assist him. She showed a callous and supreme indifference to this dying man’s plight. Her contention that she believed he would get up and walk home to get help was disingenuous … I am satisfied she was involved in a clean-up to hide evidence.”
McDonald was sentenced to serve 10 years imprisonment, split evenly between custody and on licence, meaning her release is imminent having spent the majority of this on remand.