A cage fighter and his accomplice in the murder of a 23-year-old man beaten and left to drown in the river Shannon have had their convictions upheld by the Court of Appeal.
Leszek Sychulec (35), a Polish cage fighter with an address at Drinan, Ballymahon, Co Longford, and Andrzej Gruchacz (36) with an address in Warsaw, Poland had pleaded not guilty to murdering Patryk Krupa at Bogganfin, Athlone, Co Roscommon on June 20th, 2014.
Mr Krupa drowned in the Shannon outside Athlone while incapacitated with a head injury from a violent assault.
A Central Criminal Court jury deliberated for five hours before reaching unanimous guilty verdicts.
They were accordingly given mandatory life sentences by Mr Justice Tony Hunt on June 13, 2016.
The trial heard that Mr Krupa had been walking to the gym with his two friends, when a black BMW stopped beside them and two men got out.
One of these men headbutted one of Mr Krupa’s friends and told them to f**k off. They moved away as instructed and Mr Krupa disappeared down an alley with the men from the BMW.
The Court of Appeal upheld the men’s convictions yesterday and they were both lead away to continue serving their life sentences.
Giving judgment in the three-judge court, Mr Justice George Birmingham said the investigation focused on the black BMW and gardai harvested a considerable amount of CCTV footage from various locations around Athlone which allowed them to follow the movement of the deceased and his companions up to the time he was abducted.
The footage allowed the Gardai to track the movements of the black BMW prior to and after the abduction. Part of the footage harvested came from Collins Service Station on the Roscommon Road.
It was apparent from the footage, and from witness statements taken from people who were there, that a minor incident had occured at the service station in the vicinity of the Supermacs counter inside the premises.
The two men involved in the incident were Polish and matched the descriptions of the men who had abducted the decreased. Blood was visible on their clothing.
The CCTV footage from Collins Service Station was of exceptionally high quality and was central to the subsequent Garda investigation.
The Prosecutions case was that Sychulec was the larger of the two men who abducted the deceased.
He frequented Collins Service Station and the Supermacs outlet, where he was known to staff as ‘Taco Fries’ because he regularly ordered large taco fries with extra taco sauce and extra cheese for himself and a small order for his girlfriend.
Counsel for Sychulec, Seán Gillane SC, did not challenge the fact his client appeared on the service station’s CCTV footage but did challenge the fact that witnesses to the abduction were permitted to say, by reference to the footage, that he was one of those involved in the abduction.
Mr Justice Birmingham said the Gardai had a detailed and valuable description of Sychulec who, the judge said, was a large man of “striking indeed one might say singular appearance”.
The witnesses described a “very distinctive, striking Polish man with bloodstained clothing” and the footage showed a “very distinctive, striking Polish man with bloodstained clothing”.
Mr Justice Birmingham said the court could see no unfairness in permitting the companions of the deceased to view it.
Excluding the evidence would have been contrary to reason and common sense – particularly where there was considerable additional evidence against him.
DNA matching his, as well as blood and DNA matching that of the deceased, was found in the black BMW.
There was blood and DNA matching that of the deceased found on a watch worn by Sychulec at the time of his arrest and there was evidence of blood staining on one of his socks.
When he was arrested, he denied having been in Athlone on June 20, and denied knowing the deceased notwithstanding the presence of the deceased’s blood on his watch.
Mr Justice Birmingham said the court was in no doubt that Sychulec’s trial was satisfactory and the verdict safe. His appeal was therefore dismissed.
Mr Justice Birmingham said the issue in relation to the identification of Gruchacz was that a Kuba Zmuda, who had travelled in the car along with the deceased, told the jury that the man who was present at the scene along with Sychulec (who was known to him) and therefor complicit in the killing, was the man who could be seen in the video stills. However, he never completed the circle by saying that the person in the footage was Andrzej Gruchacz.
The prosecution envisaged that one of the investigating gardaí would idenitfy Gruchacz as being the person in the stills but his evidence was challenged and excluded following legal argument.
In that event, the trial judge permitted the assessment to be made by the jury.
According to case law, (Barron J. 1995) it is unsatisfactory to ask a jury to identify an accused form a video film without adducing any evidence in support of such identification.
However, Mr Justice Birmingham said the court would caution against setting that principle “in stone”.
In appropriate cases, he said the court could see no reason why juries should not be permitted to make an identification.
“Matters have moved on and, as this case illustrates, footage of a very high quality” was now available.
Ordinarily, he said CCTV footage will be admissible as real evidence – the essence of which is that it is something that the jury can srutinise or examine for itself.
There is no difficulty with a jury doing so where the image or recording is of high quality and has been preserved. In any case where a piece of imagery is not of high quality, it remains open for the trial judge to refuse to allow it be considered without other evidence of identification.
He said there was no reason why the jury should not have been permitted to view the footage and make their own assessment.
Once they were permitted to do so, it would have been “very surprising” had they come to any other conclusion, having regard to the quality of the material available.
Further grounds of appeal in relation to the admission of a witnesses evidence under section 16 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 and a “global point” about the way in which the trial ran, were also dismissed.
Again, Mr Justice Birmingham said the Court of Appeal took the view that Gruchacz trial was satisfactory and his conviction safe.
In summary, Mr Justice Birmingham, who sat with Mr Justice John Edwards and Mr Justice John Hedigan, said all grounds of appeal were rejected and the men’s appeals were therefore dismissed.