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Man who 'assassinated a garda in cold blood' refused temporary release

Michael McHugh was initially sentenced to death but is now serving a 40-year prison term.

The crime scene in 1985
The crime scene in 1985
Image: RTE

A MAN WHO “assassinated a Garda sergeant by shooting him in cold blood” has been refused temporary release and entry to a pre-release programme because of the nature of his crime, the High Court heard today.

Michael McHugh has spent decades behind bars after having been found guilty of the murder of Sgt Patrick Morrissey following an armed robbery in 1985.

He had initially been sentenced to death in December of that year.

The sentence was commuted to 40 years penal servitude by the then-President Patrick Hillery, only days before his appointment with the hangman.

McHugh, currently incarcerated at Portlaoise Prison, has brought a number of High Court challenges against the State arising out of his continued detention.

He seeks an order quashing the Minister’s “unfair and unreasonable” refusal on 30 July last to grant him temporary release and inclusion on a pre-release programme. The State opposed the application.

Back in court

The case returned before the High Court today when McHugh’s lawyers asked Mr Justice Max Barrett for an order compelling the State to provide him with discovery of a number of documents he claimed were relevant to his action.

They sought all documents relating to his applications, including all material notes and memos considered by the Minister when making the decision to turn down his requests.

McHugh’s counsel Micheal Ó Higgins SC, who appeared with barrister Keith Spencer, said there was a lack of transparency and “a certain opaqueness” from the State parties in relation to his client’s applications.  He said Mr McHugh believed he was being singled out by the authorities.

Mr O Higgins said Mr McHugh was not allowed out even on compassionate grounds to attend family funerals. It appeared to his client that the state parties were determined that he would spend every single day of his sentence in custody.

He said that while Mr McHugh’s crime was an awful one, other prisoners who had spent lengthy periods in prison for similar crimes had been included in the programme or have been granted temporary release.

Mr McHugh had also expressed a concern that bodies representing Gardaí had made representations in regard to his applications for temporary release and inclusion on the programme.

The State, represented by barrister Paul Anthony McDermott, said Mr McHugh’s applications had been turned down by the Minister on two grounds – firstly because of the serious nature of his crime, when he “assassinated Sgt Morrissey in cold blood”, and because he had not engaged in any therapeutic assessments in the prison.

Mr McHugh had not offered any insight into his actions and he had not given any reassurances that he would not do the same thing again if released.

Judge Barrett said that, as the son of a Garda sergeant, he wanted to express his sympathies to the Morrissey family for their loss but ruled that Mr McHugh was entitled to discovery of most of the materials he sought.

He was not entitled to discovery of any communications received from An Garda Siochana or Garda Representative bodies relating to Mr McHugh’s applications.

McHugh, of Clonalig, Crossmaglen, Co Armagh, and Noel Callan, Cullavill, Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, were convicted by the non-jury Special Criminal Court in December 1985 of the murder of Sgt Morrissey at Rathbrist, Tallanstown, on 27 June 1985 following an armed robbery at Ardee Labour Exchange.

Sgt Morrissey had initially been wounded by McHugh before he then shot the unarmed Garda in the head.

In other proceedings against the State, McHugh claims he is not being given credit for five months he spent in custody, between 3 July and 3 December 1985, before his trial for Sgt Morrissey’s murder.  If successful McHugh claims he would be entitled to immediate release from prison.

More: ‘Frightening and very sad’: 37-year-old man dies after assault in Cork city

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Aodhan O'Faolain and Ray Managh

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