Posthumous Presidential Pardon be awarded to John Twiss

Posthumous Presidential Pardon be awarded to John Twiss

Helen McEntee

Justice Minister Helen McEntee has secured Government approval to recommend to President Higgins that he exercise his right to pardon John Twiss, who was convicted of the murder of John Donovan and executed in January 1895.

The granting of a Presidential Pardon is a right which should be offered only in the most deserving of circumstances. Given a number of factors in this case, and based upon the detailed report received from Dr Niamh Howlin, Ms McEntee and her Government colleagues have decided that recommending to the President that he award a posthumous Presidential Pardon to John Twiss is the correct course of action.

Ms McEntee said: “The granting of a Presidential pardon is a rare occurrence and a very high bar must be reached for consideration to be given by Government to make such a recommendation to the President.

“This case is quite well known, particularly in Kerry, and is regarded as a clear historic injustice. In reaching a decision on this matter, I have carefully considered the expert report commissioned by the then Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan TD, and the additional evidence provided by the Michael O’Donohoe Memorial Heritage Project. I would also like to particularly acknowledge the work of Mr John Roche who has engaged extensively with my officials on this matter.

“The Taoiseach is making arrangements to convey the Government’s decision to President Higgins.”

Details of the case

On 20th April, 1894, Mr James Donovan, a caretaker of a farm from which a family were recently evicted, was dragged out of his house during the night, beaten and shot in the arm. He was found by a neighbour the following morning still alive, but subsequently died. He had been in the bedroom of the farmhouse with his 7-year-old son when he was taken from the house. Within five days, John Twiss was arrested, along with 1 other man, and charged with the murder of John Donovan near the Cork / Kerry border. The only evidence against Mr Twiss at that time was the identification evidence offered by Mr Donovan’s 7-year-old son, who only identified Mr Twiss at the second identity parade, where he was flanked by 2 police officers. 3 months after his arrest, police produced two further witnesses, Mary Lyons and John Brosnan.

The first man was tried in December 1894 and quickly acquitted. A month later, the trial of John Twiss was held and lasted for three days, 7th - 9th January 1895. The prosecution case was that John Twiss was hired to carry out the murder and that he travelled 16 miles from his home in Kerry to Newmarket in Cork to kill Mr Donovan, and then travelled the 16 miles back. The jury were convinced of his guilt and on the 9th of January sentenced Mr Twiss to be hanged for murder.

On 30th January, 1895, the Fermoy Town Commissioners wrote to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle, asking him to exercise his Prerogative of Mercy in the case of John Twiss, and this petition was accompanied with 40,000 signatures, a substantial number to have been collected at that time in rural Ireland. The letter was acknowledged by Dublin Castle on 5th February. On 6th February, the discharge of Mr Twiss was refused, with the statement “The law must take its course”.

Expert Report

Dr Niamh Howlin, an expert in 19th century trial law and an Associate Professor in the Sutherland School of Law, UCD, was engaged by the Department of Justice to provide a Report on this case, and to advise upon the safety of the conviction or otherwise, with clear reference to the prevailing standards at the time.

Dr Howlin considered the various aspects of Mr Twiss’ case, including the identification evidence, witness testimony, and the conduct of the trial. She concluded her report by stating “Twiss was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence that can best be described as flimsy, following a questionable investigation…the problematic aspects of this case are like ‘strands in a rope’ which together lead to the conclusion that the nature and extent of the evidence against Twiss could not safely support a guilty verdict”

Ms McEntee said: “I want to thank Dr Howlin for her comprehensive Report on this difficult case. While we shouldn’t forget that a life was taken, it is clear to me from reading Dr Howlin’s report that the evidence against Mr Twiss, the manner in which that evidence was obtained by the authorities, and the overall conduct of the trial could in no way safely support a guilty verdict, even judging by the prevailing standards at the time.

“I intend to publish Dr Howlin’s report in the coming weeks.”

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