A street preacher who told a woman she should “burn in Hell” has been convicted of disorderly behaviour.
David McConnell, of Liswatty Road, Coleraine, appeared at the town’s Magistrates Court on Monday – his 62nd birthday – and he was also convicted of resisting a police officer in the execution of his duty.
The defendant, who has been preaching on the streets of the town for several years, had denied the offences.
Dr Mary Hannon-Fletcher, who works in the field of biomedical science, gave evidence in court and said she was in her wheelchair and was accompanied by her daughter and her daughter’s friend at Church Street in Coleraine on the afternoon of Saturday March 31 in 2018.
“This gentleman jumped out in front of me with a placard and asked me if I was a Christian. I answered ‘I don’t think that’s any of your business’.”
She said the defendant then became agitated and shouted that she would “rot in Hell”, that she was “evil” and that “people like you should burn in Hell”.
Dr Hannon-Fletcher said the shouting was very loud and others in the street could hear what the defendant was saying.
She added: “I was horrified, completely shocked that somebody could act so violently and viciously”.
She said she was in shock that someone could tell a complete stranger that they should ‘rot in Hell’.
Dr Hannon-Fletcher said she saw two police officers walking nearby and told them what happened.
Defence barrister Francis Rafferty said the defendant had asked the witness if she had “faith in God” and that McConnell had instructed that he didn’t say anything about going to Hell or that she was evil.
Mr Rafferty asked if it was possible she had misconstrued what had been said but Dr Hannon-Fletcher told the court: “I heard him very clearly”.
A police officer told the court he heard a “bit of commotion” whilst on foot patrol with a colleague and the defendant was shouting “religious things” at members of the public and looked “quite aggressive”,
He said Dr Hannon-Fletcher approached and said she had been “verbally abused” by the defendant.
The officer said that when McConnell was arrested on suspicion of disorderly behaviour he replied after caution: “You don’t like Christians”.
The policeman said that when a police car arrived on the scene the defendant tried to pull away and four officers were needed to get him into the vehicle.
The officer’s body-worn footage was played to the court in which the defendant could be heard saying: “You can’t arrest me, I’m a Christian, I’m doing my Christian duties”.
As he struggled with officers he said: “God is the law, He is the Boss”.
Mr Rafferty said the defendant was classed as a “vulnerable adult with a certain degree of mental infirmity” who was annoyed at the attitude the police had taken.
Another police officer said the defendant regularly preached in Coleraine town centre.
Entering the witness box the defendant said he would not be swearing on the Bible and instead made an affirmation.
He said he had asked the witness if she believed in God and after being told to mind his own business he “said no more”.
The defendant said: “I’m serving the Lord for 40 years. God gave me love to share this love”.
He said he preached that people “will have to stand before God”.
The defendant said police had approached him “very wrong” and an officer caught him by the arm without telling him what he was being arrested for.
A prosecution lawyer said the defendant was advised several times why he was being arrested.
The defendant said he had been handing out tracts but couldn’t recall what his placard said.
Convicting the defendant of the offences of disorderly behaviour and resisting police, District Judge Peter King that Dr Hannon-Fletcher had been left “horrified” and “shocked” and said anyone feeling that way while going about their day-to-day business deserved to be protected.
The judge said we live in a rights based society with has civil and religious freedom for all but he said rights were not absolute.
He told the defendant: “You do not have carte blanche to offend people” and act in a disorderly fashion.
In mitigation, Mr Rafferty said the defendant had a “minor” criminal record.
The prosecutor said because of what happened the injured party was now less likely to go into Coleraine town centre on a Saturday where the defendant still preaches.
Judge King said he would defer sentencing until the autumn and if the defendant avoided any further public order offences in relation to street preaching the case would likely be dealt with by fines but if there was “further abuse of your right to free speech and assembly” he could face a suspended sentence and an Anti-Social Behaviour Order banning him from Coleraine town centre on Saturdays.
The judge said Dr Hannon-Fletcher required a degree of protection from the defendant and he imposed a three year restraining order meaning he was not to pester or harass her.
Judge King asked the defendant if he was going to apologise to the injured party but he replied: “I apologise to God”.