A killer who left a nightclub following a fight, armed himself with a knife and then stabbed his victim five times when another row broke out has been jailed for nine years by a judge at the Central Criminal Court.
Mr Justice Paul Burns handed down the sentence to Nathan O'Neill who produced a knife during a fight with two unarmed men and stabbed Jamie Higgins to death.
O'Neill has previous convictions for making a threat to kill and for possession of a knife.
In a victim impact statement, Jamie's sister Leanne had told the court that O'Neill had not just killed one person but the whole family.
The judge said the introduction of the knife was a substantial aggravating factor. "When faced with two against one, it was he who introduced the knife by leaving and returning with the weapon," he said.
The judge said it was clear from statements made by Mr Higgins's mother, partner and sister that the deceased was "much loved and his death has had a profound impact on those close to him".
O'Neill (24), of Hill Top Drive, Dooradoyle, Limerick, was twice tried for murder after a jury failed to reach an agreement following his first trial in early 2022. He had pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to the manslaughter of Jamie Higgins at the Shannon Knights nightclub in Shannon, Co Clare, in the early hours of March 18th, 2018.
A jury acquitted him of murder and found him guilty of manslaughter last December following his second trial. He also pleaded guilty to causing serious harm to Michael Shannon on the same date at the same place.
Mr Justice Burns set the headline sentence for the manslaughter offence at 14 years but after taking into account O'Neill's early guilty plea, cooperation with gardaí, and genuine remorse, he reduced that to 10 years with the final 12 months suspended for three years.
The judge also noted that O'Neill had a reasonable work history before the killing and prison reports stated he is an "excellent worker" who has not come to the attention of prison staff. He is considered at low risk of violent reoffending and was described in reports as a shy person who suffers from anxiety.
There was also evidence that O'Neill had a prior history with the deceased and was in fear of him, the judge said.
For the offence of assault causing serious harm to Mr Shannon, the judge sentenced O'Neill to seven years, both sentences to run concurrently and backdated to April 1st, 2022, when O'Neill first went into custody.
St Patrick's Day altercation
At a sentencing hearing last month, Det Sgt Kevin O'Hagan told prosecution counsel Lorcan Connolly BL that the defendant travelled from his home in Limerick to Shannon for St Patrick's Day 2018. By coincidence, the deceased and a group of friends had also travelled from Limerick and after watching an Ireland rugby game, both groups ended up in the Shannon Knight's nightclub.
The court heard the defendant and deceased knew one another, and shortly after O'Neill arrived there was an "altercation" involving pushing and shoving and an allegation that a punch was thrown. Tensions were high after that, the detective said, and the defendant left the club with another person but came back about 55 minutes later. He would later tell gardaí that after leaving the club, he took a knife from a car and put it in his pocket for his protection.
When he returned to the nightclub there was another incident captured on CCTV as the defendant and the deceased came together near the dance floor. "Words were exchanged," the sergeant said, between Mr Higgins and O'Neill, and "they came almost face to face, Mr Higgins put his hand out towards the face of Nathan and jabbed out towards his face, stepped back and planted his foot and thrust his hands out towards Nathan." There was grappling involving the defendant, Mr Shannon and Mr Higgins before Mr Shannon fell to the floor and Mr Higgins separated himself and security guards intervened.
The fight lasted 10 to 12 seconds, Sgt O'Hagan said, and it later emerged that Mr Higgins had suffered five stab wounds to the abdomen and chest. The fatal wound penetrated his heart, while another stab wound damaged his kidney and contributed to his death.
Mr Shannon had also been stabbed, but his injuries were not life-threatening.
O'Neill left the nightclub and was found by gardaí crouched in undergrowth nearby. He had scratches from the brambles he was hiding under and had suffered a cut to his lip and some bruising.
Mr Higgins did not initially realise he had been injured, but he collapsed and despite efforts by staff, gardaí and paramedics, he was pronounced dead a short time later. The knife that O'Neill used was found on the ground near the dancefloor.
Det Sgt O'Hagan said following his arrest the accused was "forthright from the outset" about how he came to be at the nightclub, what happened and his history of interactions with the deceased. O'Neill told gardaí that he suffers from anxiety and armed himself with the knife following the first altercation "in case something else happened".
Det Sgt O'Hagan told the court that O'Neill has previous convictions for criminal damage and for producing a hammer during a dispute with a security guard at a shopping centre in Limerick on July 25th, 2017. He was also convicted of threatening to kill the security guard. He also has a conviction for possession of a knife.
The deceased's mother Sharon Higgins said that her son was enthusiastic about everything he did in life and had "big goals and a big heart and a good head on his shoulders".
She said: "I was so proud to say I was the mother of Jamie, he was a beautiful person with a very big heart and a kindhearted person. He was very understanding, he was kind and he was a great listener." He loved being a father and his favourite time of year was Christmas.
"He used to buy me flowers and cards," she said. "Now I buy my son flowers." She said she struggles every day and her health has deteriorated. She gets panic attacks, feeling that she is choking and gasping for air. "I don't know how to live and cope every day without my beautiful son, the way he had to die is just so unfair."
His room, she said, remains untouched with all his medals and trophies that he won playing rugby, soccer and hurling. "I can't touch it because I can't accept he is not there any more," she said.
Mr Higgins' partner Jade McNamara described him as the "most genuine, soft-hearted and generous person I have ever known". He was a proud dad who loved his son and looked forward to all his milestones; seeing him walk, his first haircut, taking his communion and confirmation and his first time kicking a football. They only had 13 months together as a family, she said.
"Jamie was my best friend, the love of my life. Nothing could ever compare or come close to him. We were hardly ever apart, he would have given me his heart if he could. When my best friend was taken from us I was numb."
She said she pushes away any feelings of happiness because of the guilt she feels at him not being there to share it. She will never understand why he was taken and said she would settle for one last day together. "Nobody can take our memories from us, they are tucked away in a special place in my heart. How lucky I was to be loved by you."
The deceased's sister Leanne said the death of her loving, caring and kind brother will haunt her forever. She asked the court to give her brother "the justice he deserves" and said that O'Neill had not just killed one person but the whole family.
A statement by the deceased's father Liam Higgins was read by Det Sgt O'Hagan. He said that his son was a "fantastic sports person and a fantastic person" who did not deserve to die as he did. The deceased's younger brother Calvin Higgins said he had done everything with Jamie who he described as his best friend and role model.
Mr Connolly, for the prosecution, told the court that the offence should fall in the higher band of culpability and should therefore attract a pre-mitigation sentence of between 10 and 15 years. The offence of causing serious harm to Mr Shannon, he said, should carry a pre-mitigation sentence of up to 10 years.
Det Sgt O'Hagan agreed with Alice Fawsitt SC for the defence that there was an allegation that Mr Higgins had punched O'Neill earlier on the night. Immediately before the stabbing, the detective agreed that O'Neill was jabbed in the face, held by Mr Shannon and Mr Higgins, and put in a headlock.
Ms Fawsitt told the court that her client was 19 at the time of the stabbing and has been described as a shy, mild-mannered young man with a history of anxiety and depression. He took responsibility for his offending and has insight into his behaviour and empathy for the family of the deceased. He shows genuine remorse and shame, she said, and does not appear to have a history of violence. Probation services consider him to be at a low risk of violent offending in the future.
He has the support of his family and after his release he intends to train to be a chef and has the "prospect of a settled life", counsel said.
She said O'Neill accepts that in bringing the knife and using it during a fight he had gone "beyond what was normal or rational" but she asked the court to take into consideration how O'Neill would have felt when he found himself involved in the altercation with his two victims.
In a letter penned by the defendant, O'Neill said that he wants to "sincerely apologise to the family of the deceased for all they went through. I want to apologise for what happened that night and I always accepted responsibility for that. I didn't set out to cause harm, but I did, and I think about that every day."
He said he will never forget what he read in the victim impact statements written by Mr Higgins's family and added that he is "sorry for making them feel this way and for letting my own family down and anybody that knows me."