A Co Antrim mother high on drink and solvents who set fire to her home while her two sons slept upstairs was today spared a prison sentence after a judge decided to release her on probation.
Judge Gordon Kerr QC told Aine Kennedy (38), of Milltown Avenue, Lisburn, that “arson is an extremely serious offence which could have led to the death of you and your children’’.
However, the judge added that having considered both the aggravating and mitigating factors in the case, he had decided given her “genuine remorse for her behaviour, that the appropriate sentence is a three-year probation order’’.
Asked by the judge if she consented to the probation order, a tearful Kennedy replied from the dock: “I do your Honour. Thank you your Honour.’’
Judge Kerr QC warned Kennedy: “If you breach this order or commit any further offences you will go straight to prison. Do you understand?’’
Kennedy replied: “I do your Honour.’’
The mother-of-two appeared in the dock of Craigavon Crown Court dressed in a blue fleece top, grey track suit bottoms and trainers.
She had been remanded in custody on Tuesday of this week after Judge Kerr QC said he wanted time to consider a number of reports before delivering his sentence.
Kennedy had earlier pleaded guilty to a single count of arson with being reckless as to whether the lives of her twos sons, aged 10 and eight, would be endangered.
The court heard that on Sunday, April 21, 2013, the defendant and her two young sons were plucked to safety by neighbours.
Prosecution counsel Nicola Auret told Judge Kerr QC that Kennedy was at home and had been smoking, drinking and taking solvents during the day.
Ms Auret said that defendant’s two sons went up to bed around 9pm and Kennedy consumed a number of Bacardi spirit drinks and sniffed solvents from butane gas cannisters.
“A neighbour and his wife heard the smoke alarm going off around 11.30 pm and also heard the defendant shouting for help,’’ said Ms Auret.
The male next door neighbour forced his way in through a rear window and with the help of his wife took Kennedy and her two sons to safety.
Today Judge Kerr QC commended the actions of the couple saying “their neighbourliness had saved lives in this case.’’
The judge said a mitigating factor in Kennedy’s favour was that she “had called out for help to save the lives of her and her children once the fires had been set. The police could have been investigating three deaths.’’
Fire crews were called, the court heard, and investigators found four seats of fire in the property.
Ms Auret said the main seat of fire was in the living room which had been started beside a sofa and damaged the carpet. Two smaller fires were found in the kitchen and a fourth in the hallway.
Kennedy was arrested by police at 1.07 am the following morning on suspicion of arson and during interview she told PSNI officers: “It was a total accident. I don’t know how the fire started.I would not hurt the kids or me. It has been the cooker. Oh my God’’.
The court heard Kennedy told police that she had no recollection of events after 9.30pm on the Sunday night.
The prosecution lawyer said Kennedy had a history of solvent abuse dating back 23 years and admitted at the time of the fire she had been drinking, smoking and sniffing butane gas.
Judge Kerr QC was told that during a search of the property, investigators found a total of 34 butane gas cannisters between the living room, the kitchen and her bedroom. A number of lighters were also recovered.
The court heard that although no accelerants were found, investigators could not rule the possibility that butane gas had been used to start the fires.
A defence barrister said Kennedy had been at pains to express her “great appreaciation and thanks’’ to the neighbour for saving her and her family.
Describing the neighbours actions as “heroic’’, the lawyer added: “It is no exaggeration of the facts that they got out of this blaze in one piece.
“No one could be more full of remorse than herself.’’
The lawyer added that Kennedy had been “abusing solvents from her early teens’’ and had also been in a troubled marriage.
He said that her young sons were now being brought up her sister and husband and there was no prospect of the them being returned to her “in the near future. In fact her family, who have been very supportive throughout, would not allow that to happen.’’
Kennedy, the court heard, held down a “very good but stressful job’’ in organising theatre schedules for the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.
“If the court decides that there is no other option but to send her to prison, then her job would go. It is an important job which has a very stabilising effect on her.
“This is a case crying out for compassion and I would ask the court to stay its hand on imposing an immediate custodial sentence,’’ the defence lawyer added.
Judge Kerr QC said that Kennedy had been suffering from depression after she ended her marriage and had a long history of solvent abuse.
He added that although Kennedy was considered to be a medium to high risk of re-offending, she was not considered to be a risk to the public and “had not deliberately set out to harm herself or her children’’.
“Arson is an extremely serious crime which would normally meet with an immediate custodial sentence. In my view, 30 months would be the appropriate sentence in this case.’’
However, the judge added that after considering the “highly exceptional circumstances of the case’’ and that her children were no longer in her care, he had decided to impose a three probation order.
This, said Judge Kerr Qc, would allow Kennedy to continue her work with addiction programmes under the supervision of the Probation Service and also allow her to remain in contact with her children.