A soldier who headbutted and punched people at random during a drunken brawl in a Richmond pub has been spared prison, chiefly because he might be needed in the civil relief effort during the coronavirus crisis.
Darren Eon Matthews, 23, picked a fight with about three men inside the Town Hall pub in Market Place, Richmond, after chucking a drink over his partner.
Matthews, an infantryman with the Royal Regiment of Scotland, went on the warpath after being “aggressive” with his girlfriend, York Crown Court heard.
“He poured the contents of a glass over her, then went up to the bar and seems to have turned his aggression towards anybody else who happened to be in the area,” said prosecutor Jonathan Sharp.
“He headbutted a man at the bar, apparently for no reason at all, causing a cut to (the victim’s) eyebrow.
“A second man intervened. The defendant tried to head-butt him and punched him several times, then head-butted another male.”
The first man to have been assaulted by the drunken squaddie “returned to the fray” and hit Matthews. They both fell to the floor where the victim hit Matthews “repeatedly”, knocking the soldier unconscious and fracturing his cheekbone.
The victim received a police caution for affray for his part in the brawl which had been instigated by Matthews.
Police were called out to the pub and when officers arrived, Matthews was still laid out on the floor.
He was quizzed six days later when he had recovered sufficiently and was subsequently charged with affray, which he admitted.
Matthews – who lives at army barracks on Bourlon Road, Catterick Garrison – appeared for sentence on Tuesday knowing his liberty and army career were at risk following the wanton violence on July 6 last year.
Matthews’ solicitor advocate Stephen Munro said his client was “deeply” remorseful and had an “unhealthy relationship with alcohol” for which he was now getting help.
He said the incident occurred at a time when Matthews’ relationship with his girlfriend was breaking down, which he “didn’t handle very well”.
Matthews had since curbed his binge-drinking after getting help from an alcohol-abuse charity.
Mr Munro said Matthews was on 48 hours’ notice with the civil authorities to deliver emergency supplies during the coronavirus crisis.
His commanding officer, Sergeant Major Alexander Frame, said that Matthews, who was part of a reconnaissance platoon, was a “really good soldier” and in line for promotion.
He said Matthews’ behavior on the night in question was “completely out of character”.
Judge Sean Morris said the violence was an “appalling piece of drunken brawling”.
But although it “easily” passed the custody threshold, Mr Morris said he could steer away from a jail sentence altogether because even a suspended prison term could hamper Matthews’ military prospects at a time when the army was being called upon for civil emergency action during the coronavirus pandemic, which has been described as akin to a war.
“He is a serving soldier (which) means he… is prepared to put his life on the line for his fellow civilians and his country, and people who do that – whether it’s working for the NHS or the ambulance or fire services, especially those who really are on the potential front line (during the fight against the viral outbreak) – deserve some hesitation from the court before imposing an immediate custodial sentence,” said the judge.
He told Matthews: “You have let yourself down and you have let your regiment down (but your behavior) was out of character and I’m satisfied this (offence) was a one-off.
“You are a serving soldier in a fighting regiment and undoubtedly, in the present times we are living in, the emergency services of this country now require help from the armed forces.
“You are ordinarily a decent young man… who is prepared, if necessary, to lay his life down for his country.”
Handing Matthews a two-year community order, the judge also cited the young soldier’s “very impressive” character references which allowed him to take a “pretty exceptional” course in not imposing a custodial sentence.
As part of that order, Matthews was ordered to carry out 250 hours’ unpaid work and pay £345 costs.