Why would you set someone alight?

Five years in jail, with 18 months suspended, was the sentence handed down to Brian Keane from Galway this week. With remission he’ll be free in half that time.

His crime? Using a lighter to set alight a home-made sheep’s costume worn by Matthew Sheridan at a Halloween fancy dress party and inflicting severe injuries to him.

Picture the scene as Sheridan’s highly flammable costume suddenly turned him into a human torch, his screams filling the air as he instinctively used his hands to pull the costume off. He sustained serious damage to his hands and 75% burns to his body. That was just the start of his new world.

Sheridan would be put into an induced coma and spend several weeks on the critical list. He was then transferred to another Dublin hospital before undergoing four months of skin grafts in France. It would be six months before gardai were able to talk to him about the incident.

As Justice Rory McCabe said at the sentencing this week: “He [Keane] took a lighter, lit it and put it to the clothing of the victim. If you need a definition of recklessness, you have it there.”

There can be few more appalling acts than to set someone alight, intentionally or not. Keane was a highly intelligent young man, a stranger who had never met his victim before. It was meant to be a ‘prank’, he later told gardai, but it backfired with horrific consequences.

I may not remember my own accident, but I recall in vivid detail the excruciating pain I went through over the years with major reconstructive surgery and skin grafts.

Talk to any burns survivor and they will tell you of their living nightmare – the years of surgery and recovery, and the psychological effects it has on them. Career opportunities may be denied and reconciling yourself to your new face or body is a very difficult road. Dealing with your new self is a huge blow to your confidence, can be traumatic and lead to social seclusion.

It’s not something I would like anyone else to ensure, not even my worst enemy. Accidents happen, of course, but this was shocking behaviour that left a frightful legacy.

Brian Keane, now a law graduate, pleaded guilty just moments before his trial was due to begin last February to intentionally or recklessly causing serious bodily harm to Sheridan. It’s some sort of justice for his victim, but it won’t blot out the pain he has suffered, his horrific injuries, nor the damage to his career.

Sheridan in his victim impact statement said he could not understand the “incomprehensible cruelty” of his attacker and criticised the justice system for delaying justice in his case.

He said he had never received an apology from Keane. “I was haunted by the knowledge that he was leading a healthy life while I was suffering. I was the victim of a faceless, nameless person I did not know.

“I was missing 70% of my skin and I underwent extensive emergency surgeries. Metal rods were put through my fingers. The pain and anguish of not being able to do ordinary things was unbearable. This attack was unprovoked and sinister and incredibly malevolent.

“I was tortured because he wanted me to be so. He changed my life forever. He literally burnt me to the bone.

“My fingers burned off. Why could he not just have hit me or kicked me or broken a bottle of glass over my head or shot me or stabbed me – anything but fire?

“You snuck up behind me in a dark room and then left me to burn to death,” Sheridan said to his attacker who refused to look him in the eye.

“I thought I was dying. I begged for the pain to end. The stench of burning flesh overpowered me. I thought I might be blinded. The paramedics wrapped me in cling film and I begged them for pain relief and to put me to sleep.

“I was out celebrating finishing my exams. I had plans, but you found me. Who are you to jeopardise my plans? But my plans to be a paediatric surgeon have been put in jeopardy by you.”

Sheridan added that there had been no attempt at an apology and no offer of compensation. “You immediately turned and walked away that night and you have been doing it ever since. Where were you when I got my medical bills from France?

“You took my health, my peace of mind, my job, my hobbies, my fitness. You stole them all from me.

“Who are you to inflict such misery just because I was an easy target. I have persistent nightmares. You have caused me more pain than you can imagine. It was not an accident. It was done deliberately to me. It was an opportunistic assault.”

Keane’s senior counsel read out an apology in which his client expressed remorse. There had been no apology in the years since the attack – on the advice of his solicitor at the time. According to the senior counsel, Keane was on anti-depressants and seeing a psychiatrist and psychologist. In seeking mitigation of his sentence he pointed out that the probation report showed that Keane’s intoxicated condition had impaired his judgment.

Keane may gain his freedom in a couple of years, but for Sheridan the nighmare continues. He faces more skin grafts, and part of his finger was amputated decreasing the likelihood he will ever be able to achieve his ambition of becoming a paediatric surgeon.

Some devastation for what was meant to be a ‘prank’.

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