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When life means life: ‘All I went for was a few bob. I hadn’t it in mind at all to kill her’

Through the Freedom of Information Act, TheJournal.ie discovered there are just three men who have been imprisoned for over 40 years for murders committed back in the 1960s and 1970s.

IN RECENT WEEKS, huge interest has been sparked in the Steven Avery story in the US after the release of the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer.

America isn’t the only country where people end up spending decades behind bars.

Ireland has its own ‘lifers’ who have lived in prisons and not seen the outside world for the majority of their years.

In total, there are 31 prisoners incarcerated in Irish prisons who have been in custody more than 20 years.

Of this figure, 29 are serving life sentences and two are serving capital murder sentences, which carries a term of 40 years.

The current, average life sentence is approximately 18 years, according to the Irish Prison Service.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, TheJournal.ie discovered there are just three men who have been imprisoned for more than 40 years for murders committed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Over the next three weeks, TheJournal.ie will tell their stories.

John Joseph Kenny

The least-known of the three prisoners is John Joseph Kenny. He has been in the custody of the Irish Prison Service for more than 42 years.

On 19 December 1973, 18-year-old Kenny from Galway was brought before the Ballinasloe Court and charged with the murder of Sarah Frances Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick ran a small local shop in the town. She was 79 years old.

On 9 May 1974, the then 19-year-old, appeared before the Central Criminal Court in Dublin. The Irish Press reported Kenny pleaded not guilty to the murder of the elderly woman.

press 2 Source: Irish Press 9 May 1974

The jury was told there was a large body of evidence that proved that Kenny killed the elderly woman in her home on Dunlo Street, Ballinasloe.

Kevin Lynch SC for the prosecution brought forward the murder weapon – a blood stained candlestick holder found near the body.

The court was told the victim had a number of lacerations to her skull, seven fractured ribs and bruises all over her body.

IMG_3852 Source: Irish Press 10 May 1974

In the prosecution’s opening statements, Lynch said that Kenny had visited a number of pubs on the night of 17-18 December 1973, the evening the murder took place.

The jury was told that on that night, Kenny broke into the home of Ms Fitzpatrick with the probable motive of carrying out a robbery.

Garda William Stanford from the photographic section of the Garda Technical Bureau showed the court his book of photographs which include images of fingerprints and the kitchen window, frame and broken glass which was found in the kitchen.

The court also heard from Dr Kevin Arnold who said he examined the body on 18 December. Fitzpatrick had been dead about seven or eight hours before she was found, according to the expert.

The body was found by a neighbour, Margaret McAdams, when she noticed the shop hadn’t been opened.

She looked in and said she saw her body lying on the floor.

I saw blood on her head. She appeared to be dead.

The Irish Independent reported from the trial that Garda Christopher Feeney of Ballinasloe Garda Station told the court that on 19 December 1973, he overheard Kenny speaking to his father and his two sisters.

dunlo Dunlo Street, Ballinasloe Source: Google Maps

The court was told Kenny had already appeared before the District Court and been charged with murder at this time.

The garda said he heard Kenny’s father ask: “How did you get into the house?” to which his son replied: “Through the back window.”

Garda Feeney said he heard Kenny say that he was at a box in Ms Fitzpatrick’s bedroom when she woke up.

He said Kenny’s father asked his son what he had killed her with and Kenny replied that he had hit her with “a candlestick”.

In Garda Feeney’s evidence, he said Kenny told his father that he did not think the elderly woman was dead after he had struck her and he told his father he had picked her up and put her back in bed.

Kenny’s sister, Carmel Kenny, also gave evidence during the trial that day. She told the court she rejected the testimony of Garda Feeney and said she was present during that entire conversation.

She told the jury that her brother had actually said he was in Ms Fitzpatrick’s bedroom when she awoke and her brother told them he had ran down the stairs. She said Fitzpatrick followed him and she tripped and fell. “He picked her up and put her back in bed,” she said.

“He never said he hit Miss Fitzpatrick with a candlestick.”

First murder trial collapse 

On the second day of the trial, proceedings hit an obstacle. The jury who had been sent out could not agree upon a verdict.

After an absence of just over two hours, Justice O’Keeffe ordered a re-trial of the case.

59e5ed21-8e50-4fe3-9783-de64d607d25c Source: Irish Press 11 May 1974

Following the breakdown of the first trial, Kenny returned to court in June 1974.

For a second time, Kenny pleaded not guilty to murder.

On 17 June 1974, the jury heard evidence from Thomas Finnerty who said he had been out drinking with Kenny on the night of the murder.

Eight pints of beer

He said he met Kenny in Curly’s pub on Dunlo Street, confirming his acquaintance had about eight pints of beer. Kenny also asked him for 2p to buy his last pint, he claimed.

fffff Source: Irish Press 18 June 1974

According to the court report, published in the Irish Press, Finnerty told the defence lawyer Seamus Sorahan that Kenny was “quite a bit drunk” when he left the pub.

Garda Feeney again gave his statement about hearing Kenny admit he had hit Fitzpatrick with a candlestick. He added that he heard Kenny tell his father that when he put her back to bed, she was not yet dead and still breathing.

However, according to court reports, Kenny’s sister Carmel, changed her testimony in this second trial, telling the jury she heard her brother tell their father that he had hit the woman with the candlestick, but he did not kill her.

Patrick Kenny, John Joseph Kenny’s father, also gave evidence to the court. He told the jury he asked his son had he killed Miss Fitzpatrick. He said his son replied: “No.”

Sergeant Patrick J Colleran told the jury that he had shown the candlestick to Kenny and said the accused said: “Yes, that’s what I hit her with. That was on the mantlepiece.”

Statement to gardaí

The court was told of an alleged statement Kenny gave to gardaí, where he said he had broken into Fitzpatrick’s home as he was “looking for a few bob”.

He went upstairs and said he found a cash box in the room next to where Fitzpatrick was sleeping but it fell to the ground and there was a loud bang. Kenny said he heard the bed springs move in the next room.

In his statement, he said that after hitting her, he put her back in bed and put blankets over her. He said this was around 4am in the morning.

Gardaí told the court the statement from Kenny continued:

That is the crime now. If I wasn’t drunk I would not have done it. All I went for was a few bob. I hadn’t it in mind at all to kill her and I didn’t intend to kill her.

In an unsworn statement made by Kenny to Justice Butler and the jury, Kenny said that after leaving the pub he found himself short of cash and he decided to break in somewhere to get money or drink.

He broke into Sarah Fitzpatrick’s home and went upstairs. He said he had not realised there was someone in the room and ‘he got into a terrible panic’.

Kenny said he saw a dark figure coming towards him.

He said he picked up “something like a candlestick” and hit out “pure wildly” striking the elderly woman.

He said it was all over in a few seconds. He said he threw the candlestick to the floor and ran home.

The unsworn statement added: 

I had no intention of killing that woman at all. All I wanted was a few bob, or a drink.

On Tuesday 18 June, the jury in the second trial of John Joseph Kenny returned with a verdict.

HEADLINES Source: Headllines from both National and regional newspapers.

John Joseph Kenny was given a life sentence for the murder of Sarah Frances Fitzgerald.

Well-placed sources today have told TheJournal.ie that since his imprisonment 42 years ago, Kenny has been released on some occasions.

The granting of temporary or early release of life sentenced prisoners is a feature of the prison systems in Ireland.

loughans_house Loughan House, Cavan. Source: Screengrab/Irish Prison Service

However, on each occasion, it’s believed that Kenny has breached the terms of his release due to addiction reasons and has been returned to prison to complete his life sentence.

It’s believed that Kenny has spent some years in Mountjoy Prison training unit.

This is a semi-open low security prison for males aged 18 years and over. There is a strong emphasis on work and training.

Kenny is now held at Loughan House, a low security prison for men in Cavan.

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