Presidential pardons for 1882 murder executed

Presidential pardons for 1882 murder executed

Dr Niamh Howlin

A rare posthumous presidential pardon is to be granted to two men convicted and executed in relation to an 1882 murder following research by Dr Niamh Howlin.

Sylvester Poff and James Barrett were convicted of the murder of Thomas Browne in October 1882 and executed in January 1883.

The trials took place in a politically-charged atmosphere during the Land War and following the Phoenix Park murders in May 1882.

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

Her report concluded that the pair were convicted on the basis of a trial featuring a “packed jury”, evidential deficiencies including conflicting witness testimony, no motive and investigative failures. There was no direct evidence, only circumstantial and contradictory evidence of one witness.

“A twenty-first 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,” she concluded.

“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.”

In light of the report, the government has recommended to President Michael D. Higgins that he grant a posthumous presidential pardon to the pair. This would be only the fourth occasion on which a posthumous presidential pardon has been awarded.

Justice minister Helen 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.

“I would like to acknowledge the work done by the Castleisland District Heritage Inc. Michael O’Donohue Memorial Project in bringing this case to my Department.”

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