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Pardons approved for two men hanged in Co Kerry in 1880s

Two men who were hanged more than 140 years ago after being convicted of murder could soon receive a posthumous presidential pardon following Government approval.

In December 1882, Sylvester Poff and James Barrett were convicted of murdering Thomas Browne in Co Kerry and were executed in Tralee Gaol in January 1883.

However, an external report has found that they should be given a pardon as their convictions were unsafe.

Today, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said she had secured approval from Government for the granting of pardons by President Michael D Higgins.

The case

On 3 October 1882, Mr Browne was murdered while he was working in one of his fields in Dromulton, near Scartaglin.

Two men dressed in dark coats were seen by a neighbour entering the field before Mr Browne was shot several times.

Mr Poff and Mr Barrett did not match the descriptions of the assailants, however they were known to be in the vicinity at the time of the murder and were arrested following a statement by the neighbour.

The prosecution relied heavily on evidence from the neighbour, whose story changed as the case progressed and could not be regarded as a reliable witness.

Mr Poff and Mr Barrett were tried twice before special juries in Co Cork over the murder after the jury in the first trial failed to reach a verdict.

They were convicted of murder following a second trial and despite pleas for mercy to the lord lieutenant, they were executed.

Tensions were high at the time of Mr Browne’s death following the Phoenix Park murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke on 6 May 1882.

Coercive legislation was passed in July 1882 to clamp down on crimes such as murder, treason, arson, attacks on dwelling-houses and crimes of aggravated violence.

Independent review

Dr Niamh Howlin, an expert in 19th century trial law and an associate professor at the Sutherland School of Law in UCD, was asked by the Department of Justice to undertake an independent external review of the case.

She found that a number of factors in the investigation and procedures around the trial led her to form the opinion that Mr Poff’s and Mr Barrett’s convictions were unsafe.

Some of these factors were evidential deficiencies, including conflicting witness testimony, no motive, other lines of enquiry appearing to have been neglected as well as a a ‘packed’ jury – a jury which is brought together unfairly or corruptly.

Dr Howlin’s report also found that there was no direct evidence against Mr Poff and Mr Barrett, with the prosecution resting on circumstantial and contradictory evidence of one witness.

She said: “A 21st century criminal court would not convict Poff and Barrett on the basis of the evidence which was presented by the crown in 1882.

“The convictions were also inconsistent with the legal standards of the period.

“They were convicted on the basis of evidence which was both circumstantial and weak.

“The trials and conviction of Poff and Barrett included legal and procedural deficiencies which were so inconsistent with the legal standards of the period and so objectively unsatisfactory and unfair, that they render the conviction unsafe.”

‘Very rare occurrence’ – McEntee

Today, Ms McEntee and her Government colleagues decided to recommend to President Michael D Higgins that he exercises his right to pardon on the grounds that the convictions were unsafe.

The Department of Justice said the a granting of a presidential pardon should be offered only in the most deserving of circumstances.

Ms McEntee said: “This is a very rare occurrence, and a very high bar must be reached for the Government to recommend to the President that he exercise this right.

“Having considered the findings in Dr Howlin’s report, the trial, conviction and execution of Mr Poff and Mr Barrett were unfair by the standards of the time.

“Both men were wrongfully convicted and suffered the harshest penalty under the law of the time in what can now be attributed to a miscarriage of justice.”

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