Planned tributes to Limerick judge cancelled in wake of public anger over sentence of soldier

Judge Tom O'Donnell.

PLANNED farewell tributes to Judge Tom O’Donnell, who retires from the Limerick Circuit Criminal Court this Wednesday (June 26), have been cancelled in the wake of a storm of social unrest.

This comes after Judge O’Donnell imposed a suspended sentence on a soldier who savagely beat a woman unconscious in Limerick City.

Legal sources confirmed that tributes would not go ahead on Wednesday in the wake of publicity around the case as it was feared it would further fuel what they felt were unfair criticisms of the judge.

Last week a reception was held at a hotel in the Treaty City in recognition of Judge O’Donnell’s 47-year legal career, first as a solicitor, then a District Court judge, and finally as a Circuit Court judge.

A protest is planned outside the court Wednesday amid growing public anger over the terms of the sentence on soldier Cathal Crotty.

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Legal sources said they had “sympathy” for Judge O’Donnell, saying he had found himself “in the midst of a tornado” of public discord. They said they vehemently disagreed with some of the “outrageous” commentary aimed at the judge, particularly online.

Judge O’Donnell, who members of the Limerick legal profession today described as one of the country’s most “fair”, “courteous”, and “hard-working” judges nationally, last Wednesday imposed a three-year suspended sentence on solider Crotty (22), who admitted assaulting Natasha O’Brien (24) in an unprovoked street attack in 2022.

Ms O’Brien said she was disgusted with the sentence and later called on the Defence Forces to boot Crotty out of the army.

Following this, socialist feminist group ROSA organised street protests around the country to support Ms O’Brien and called for legal reforms and an end to gender-based violence. Thousands flooded the streets in solidarity with Ms O’Brien, who delivered a powerful speech in front of hundreds on Limerick’s Bedford Row.

Crotty, of Parkroe Heights, was also ordered by Judge O’Donnell to pay €3,000 in compensation, after he pleaded guilty to the charge of assaulting Ms O’Brien causing her harm at O’Connell Street, Limerick City, on May 29, 2022.

Ms O’Brien was walking home from work when she was attacked by Crotty, a private in the Defence Forces based at Sarsfield Barracks.

Judge O’Donnelll heard Ms O’Brien had “politely” asked Crotty to refrain from shouting homophobic slurs at other people on the street, when he grabbed her by her hair and began punching her.

Crotty punched Ms O’Brien six times into her head and face and continued striking her after she fell to the ground and lost consciousness.

Crotty ran away when a male passer-by intervened.

Later that day Crotty boasted in messages to friends on Snapchat, saying: “Two to put her down, two to put her out.”

As Ms O’Brien was about to begin reading her victim impact statement to the court last week, Judge O’Donnell asked her if she understood the “significance” of Crotty’s guilty plea, which the judge explained had saved the court, as well as Gardaí, time and resources that would have otherwise been required for a trial, and that would have otherwise delayed the case by at least 18 months.

Appearing somewhat taken aback by the judge’s question, Ms O’Brien replied she had been through “two long years of trauma” waiting or the case to go before the Circuit Court judge.

“I have been suffering symptoms of PTSD, and I’ve had to attend multiple therapists since the attack. I became numb and detached from reality, living in perpetual fear of seeing him again,” Ms O’Brien told the judge.

Crotty’s superior officer, Commandant Paul Togher, told the court that the Crotty he had known in the army was at all times “exemplary”, “courteous”, “professional”, and “disciplined” in his conduct.

Commandant Togher said he was “exceptionally disappointed and surprised” at Crotty’s “very out of character” behaviour, and that he was most disappointed, because he said, members of the Defence Forces were “expected to keep people safe”.

Judge O’Donnell said he found Crotty’s actions on the night as “utterly appalling” and that Crotty “took pride in striking a defenceless female in what was a cowardly, vicious, unprovoked, and totally unnecessary assault”.

The judge said he had “no doubt” an immediate prison sentence would have meant Crotty’s army career was over.

However, he said he had to balance the aggravating factors Crotty’s actions with mitigating factors such as Crotty’s early guilty plea (after initially trying to blame Ms O’Brien); Crotty’s previous good character and that he had no previous convictions; and the fact that if Crotty had contested the case, it would have compounded Ms O’Brien’s trauma.

However, speaking after the sentence was imposed, Ms O’Brien indicated that the terms of Crotty’s fully suspended sentence had re-traumatised her.

She also argued that she had lost her job because she could not cope after the attack and that Crotty had walked free from court and was, then, still a Private in the army.

The Defence Forces has since commended Ms O’Brien for her bravery, and it said that it was conducting its own internal enquiries, which is likely to have consequences for Mr Crotty’s military career.