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Man executed after being found guilty of 1894 murder to receive posthumous pardon

An expert report found that John Twiss was wrongfully convicted for the murder of John Donovan.

Image: Sam Boal

THE MINISTER FOR Justice has received approval from the government to recommend the pardoning of a man executed in January 1895.

It is now up to President Michael D Higgins – who has previously supported such calls – to issue the pardon for John Twiss who was convicted of murdering John Donovan near the Cork / Kerry border in 1894.

If granted, it’ll be only the fifth such presidential pardon since 1937, and only the third posthumous one.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee said that the decision to recommend the pardon was made after an export review of the case clearly pointed to a wrongful conviction.

In April 1894, John Twiss was one of two men in the local area arrested and charged with the murder of John Donovan.

Donovan was, a caretaker of a farm from which a family were recently evicted, was dragged out of his house during the night in front of his 7-year-old son, beaten and shot in the arm.

He was found by a neighbour the following morning still alive, but subsequently died.

The only evidence against Twiss at that time was the identification evidence offered by Donovan’s young son, who only identified Twiss at the second identity parade, where he was flanked by two police officers. Two further witnesses were produced by police three months after Twiss’ arrest.

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, 7 to 9 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 Donovan, and then travelled the 16 miles back. The jury were convinced of his guilt and on 9 January sentenced Twiss to be hanged for murder.

The Fermoy Town Commissioners wrote to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle on On 30 January 1895, asking him to exercise his Prerogative of Mercy in Twiss’ case, accompanied by a petition with 40,000 signatures. The letter was acknowledged by Dublin Castle but the discharge of Twiss was refused, with the statement: “The law must take its course”.

“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,” McEntee said in a statement.

“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.”

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McEntee added that the Taoiseach is making arrangements to convey the Government’s decision to President Higgins.

Dr Niamh Howlin, an expert in 19th Century trial law and an Associate Professor in the Sutherland School of Law, UCD, was commissioned by the Department of Justice to provide a report in which she considered the various aspects of Twiss’ case, including the identification evidence, witness testimony, and the conduct of the trial.

“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,” Dr Howlin concluded.

Minister McEntee thanked Dr Howlin for her work on this “difficult case”, adding: “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.”

McEntee said the Department intends to publish the report in the coming weeks.

About the author:

Adam Daly

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