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7 Extraordinary Exonerations

In Ireland you hear the term “miscarriage of justice” and it probably conjures up images of Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon in the movie In the Name of the Father, tearing at his shirt, railing at the world. Or, depending on your age, maybe you think of the Fugitive Richard Kimble and his (on the face of it rather shaky) theory of a one-armed wife-hunting murderer.

Potential miscarriage of justice cases have come to dominate popular documentary-making and given the court of public opinion a new lease of life; first with the slow-burning podcast Serial, and latterly with the imperious Making a Murderer, which has given rise to a cottage industry of sleuthing and conspiracy spinning.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far from home to encounter cases where the justice system failed an accused. Here are 7 extraordinary exonerations from the Irish courts:

1. Martin Conmey

Martin Conmey

Martin Conmey

 

On a clear October night in 1971, an attractive young woman journeying home from her job in Dublin stepped off a commuter bus in rural Co Meath. As on most evenings, she stopped to chat with her cousin for a few moments, recounting the day’s events. Saying her goodbyes, she then turned to make her way down the dark, winding laneway that led to her family home. She was never seen alive again.

Two months later the skeletal remains of the civil servant, who was from the small village of Ratoath, were found in the Dublin mountains.

Suspicion for her murder quickly locked onto three young men from the town: Martin Kerrigan, Dick Donnelly and Martin Conmey. The men were arrested, detained at Trim Garda Station and questioned. Forty-eight hours later, they were released, Conmey and Kerrigan having made statements which placed them on Porterstown Lane during the crucial fifteen-minute period in which Ms Lynskey disappeared, having stepped off her bus at 6.55pm and started the short walk to her home.

All three men claimed that while in detention they had been ill-treated and had made their statements under extreme duress. The case was being handled by the nascent “murder squad,” a team of garda detectives which investigated practically every serious crime in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s.

Attitudes to the “squad” veered from commendations for their work to allegations of brutality. (An Amnesty International investigation, which examined twenty-eight cases between April, 1976 and May, 1977, concluded that there was pushing and shoving, severe beatings, water and sleep deprivation.)

On the night of December 19 1971, just one week after the grim discovery of Una Lynskey’s body, her brothers Sean and James Lynskey and her cousin Patrick Gaughan abducted Martin Kerrigan.

Martin Kerrigan, who was never charged in relation to Una Lynskey’s disappearance, protested his innocence to the last. His lifeless, mutilated body was found in Tibradden the following morning at the exact spot where Una Lynskey’s body had been uncovered a week earlier. He had been asphyxiated and violently assaulted. An attempt had been made to castrate him post-mortem.

In May 1972, Una Lynskey’s brothers Sean and James and their cousin Patrick Gaughan were convicted of the manslaughter of Martin Kerrigan and sentenced to three years in prison. At their trial the men affirmed that they never meant to kill Kerrigan, and when they left him in Tibradden he was still alive and bodily intact.

Barely a month later, Dick Donnelly and Martin Conmey went on trial for the murder of Una Lynskey. The trial was almost derailed completely when both the accused and several witnesses openly disputed statements and depositions they had given. After a 13-day trial, Conmey and Donnelly were convicted of Una Lynskey’s murder.

However a year later, Donnelly successfully appealed his conviction. Martin Conmey, though, was convicted and served three years in prison. He was 20-years-old at the time.

In November, 2010, nearly four decades after the disappearance of Una Lynskey, the Court of Criminal Appeal exonerated Conmey and quashed his conviction. The court found that early statements taken from witnesses Martin Madden and Sean Reilly, which tended to favour Conmey, were not disclosed to the defence and were radically inconsistent with later statements of the same witnesses and evidence given at the trial.

Four years later, the same court declared Martin Conmey’s 1972 conviction to be a Miscarriage of Justice.

2. Nora Wall

Nora Wall

Nora Wall

 

“Vile Nun”, “Pervert Nun”, “Mercy Devil”, “I was Raped by Anti-Christ” – these were the tabloid headlines which described former Sisters of Mercy nun, Nora Wall, after she was convicted, in June 1999, of rape.

Three years earlier, two women in their twenties, Regina Walsh and Patricia Phelan, had made allegations that, while in her care, they had been raped by Nora Wall. The case relied heavily on what was termed the women’s repressed memory.

Only a week after Nora Wall’s conviction, however, doubts were raised. The Star had published the alleged rape victims’ names, and one of the women, Regina Walsh, had claimed in an interview that she had been raped in London by a black man.

This was news to Nora Wall’s defence lawyers. Meanwhile, in Kilkenny, a businessman who had read the interview recognised Patricia Phelan as the woman who, some years before, had made a false rape allegation against him. This, too, was new evidence.

And yet, one month after her conviction, Nora Wall was sentenced by Mr Justice Paul Carney to life behind bars. Not only was Nora Wall the first woman convicted of rape in the history of the State, but now she was the first person to receive a life sentence for that crime.

After only four days, however, her sentence was quashed at the Court of Criminal Appeal when it emerged a prosecution witness had been called, against the direction of the DPP, to testify at her trial. That witness later admitted fabricating evidence in which she claimed to have seen Nora Wall holding down the alleged victim during the attack.

In light of those new facts, in December 2005 the Court of Criminal Appeal declared Ms Wall’s conviction a miscarriage of justice.

3. Micheal Hannon

Michael Hannon

Michael Hannon

 

In 1999, Michael Hannon, a 23-year old man from Galway, was convicted of sexually assaulting a ten-year old girl, Una Hardester. Hannon was given a suspended prison sentence of four years.

Seven years later, however, and having returned from the USA, Una Hardester admitted that her allegations had been fabricated. Her motivation, she said, was revenge.

Her family and Hannon’s lived near each other but, in sadly all-too-familiar fashion, had fallen out after a dispute over land. A few days before her complaint, Hardester had been in court with her father, Crofton, who was convicted of assaulting Hannon’s father.

Una Hardester had come clean, she said, after “finding God”.

In April, 2009, the Court of Criminal Appeal declared Hannon’s conviction a miscarriage of justice.

 

 

4. Joanna Hayes and the Kerry Babies

Two dead babies were found in Kerry in April, 1984.

The first, a newborn boy discovered on White Strand in Caherciveen, had been stabbed to death. Local gardai, aided by the murder squad (who had travelled from Dublin to Kerry), drew up a list of potential suspects: women who had recently left the area; women in a local home for unmarried mothers; women involved in relationships that had recently broken up…

Their investigation led the gardai to a local woman, Joanne Hayes, who had been pregnant around the time of the first baby’s death.

Ms Hayes and her family were questioned by the detectives and, under what they later alleged was coercion, made statements in which they confessed their involvement in the baby’s death.

Within days, they withdrew their statements. Ms Hayes’, the family said, had in fact given birth to a stillborn baby on the family farm and buried it there. The baby found on the beach at Caherciveen was not hers, they said.

Their protests were ignored. Ms Hayes was charged with the murder of the first baby.

The next day, the baby Ms Hayes claimed was her own was found on the family farm, buried in a plastic bag. Blood tests were carried out and proved that the baby found on the farm shared the same blood group – A – as Ms Hayes and its father, Jeremiah Locke, a married man with whom Ms Hayes had been having an affair. The baby from the beach was of blood group O.

Unperturbed, the detectives persisted with their story. Flying in the face of Occam’s razor, a complex theory of “heteropaternal superfecundation” was put forward by police. Despite reigning legal and medical opinion that this was an extremely rare and unlikely event, gardai believed that Ms Hayes had in fact given birth to twins from two separate fathers.

A charge of murder against Ms Hayes were thrown out by a judge. In 1985 Minister for Justice Michael Noonan established a public tribunal of inquiry in to the affair.

A superfecundation expert told the tribunal that the possibility of Joanne Hayes having conceived twins of two different fathers was so remote it could be dismissed.

5. Christy Lynch

A soldier from Rialto, Christy Lynch was convicted of the murder of Vera Cooney at her home in Sandymount, Dublin, in September 1976. He had confessed to the fatal stabbing of Ms Cooney, a single, 51-year-old Dublin Gas employee.

After the conviction, Lynch protested that detectives from the Garda murder squad, nicknamed “the Heavy Gang,” had beaten him and constantly questioned him, for twenty-two hours, before forcing the confession out of him. The statement in which Lynch admitted the murder was the only piece of evidence put forward by the prosecution during the trial.

The Court of Criminal Appeal ordered a retrial on the basis that the statement was inadmissible. However, the same statement was allowed to be put to the jury in the retrial, and Lynch was again found guilty.

But the Supreme Court, in a rare ruling involving a murder case, set Lynch free and declared him an innocent man on the basis that the confession had been signed after a lengthy period of unbroken questioning, making it unjust and unfair to admit in evidence anything he said.

6. The Sallins Train Robbery and Nicky Kelly

Singer Christy Moore

Singer Christy Moore

 

As I walked past Portlaoise prison,
“I’m innocent”, a voice was heard to say
“My frame-up is almost completed.
My people all look the other way.”
Give the Wicklow Boy his freedom,
Give him back his liberty,
Or are we going to leave him in chains,
While those who framed him up hold the key?

The lyrics are Christy Moore’s from his 1983 song Wicklow Boy.

The Wicklow boy in question was Nicky Kelly who, in 1978, had been convicted with three other men of the robbery of 200,000 Irish pounds from a mail train at Sallins, County Kildare, on March 31st, 1976.

After the robbery, the murder squad – yep, them again – arrested five members of Irish Republican Socialist Party: Osgur Breatnach, Brian McNally, Michael Plunkett and John Fitzpatrick and Nicky Kelly.

During interrogation, all except Plunkett signed alleged confessions, and all exhibited injuries they claimed were inflicted by gardai.

At the Special Criminal Court, after a sixty-five day trial – the longest criminal trial in the history of the State – the men were convicted on their statements. Kelly, who had jumped bail and fled to America, was sentenced in absentia to twelve years in prison.

In May, 1980, the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the convictions of Breatnach and McNally.

In the same month, the IRA claimed responsibility for the theft. The next month, expecting an acquittal, Nicky Kelly returned home but was instead incarcerated in Portlaoise prison, where he would spend the next four years, protesting his innocence, including a period on hunger strike.

In 1984, justice Minister Micheal Noonan released Kelly on humanitarian grounds. A presidential pardon followed in 1992.

Kelly went on to forge a career in politics, becoming, in 2008, the Mayor of Arklow.

7. Harry Gleeson

To call the others on the list lucky, considering the turmoil of a wrong conviction, might appear inappropriate. But at least their convictions were quashed while they were still alive.

Harry Gleeson didn’t even have that small mercy.

Instead, in April 1941, Gleeson was hanged in Mountjoy prison for the murder of Mary “Moll” McCarthy.

Six months earlier, Gleeson had found the body Mary McCarthy, a single mother of seven, in his uncle’s field in County Tipperary. She had been shot twice in the face. Gleeson reported the discovery to the gardai but soon emerged as their chief suspect.

He was charged with the murder and, at his trial, it was claimed that he had fathered one of Mary McCarthy’s seven children and had killed her to silence her.

The conviction, however, was based on circumstantial evidence. A review from last year found that gardai and prosecution withheld crucial evidence at the trial, including a statement showing that gardai fabricated evidence against Gleeson to prejudice the jury.

Last summer, Gleeson was granted a posthumous pardon by the State.

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