Surviving Ireland’s death row

Peter Pringle was released from prison after 14 years when his life sentence for murder was quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1995.

Surviving Ireland’s death row

He was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. In his new book, Peter Pringle reveals his fight for freedom — and how, in an extraordinary turn of events, the experience led him to his wife, Sunny Jacobs, a woman who also served more than a decade in prison for a murder she was innocent of. Conor Ryan reports

THREE-and-a-half acres around a cottage in west Galway is enough for Peter Pringle and Sunny Jacobs to make a good life.

Last weekend Sunny planted her winter crop of spinach and kale. The onions will go into the ground shortly.

All year round she has Peter to keep on top of the labouring.

“We have two cats, three dogs, two hens and a rooster, five ducks and eight goats,” Peter says. “And we have a poly-tunnel, Sunny is a terrific gardener. So we have most of our food there.”

Having moved to rural Ireland from the sprawl of Los Angeles, Sunny sees her life with the 74-year-old Dublin man she married last year as “idyllic”.

“This is more like the life I would have dreamed of having,” she says.

Peter used to escape to the mountains of the west coast as a teenager. But right now he is more overwhelmed by the person he has found to live there with.

“I can’t say it was a dream to live here but I never expected to meet someone like Sunny Jacobs. To meet someone who completely understands where I came from and I understand where she comes from.

“We don’t have to live our lives in the past. We don’t have to explain ourselves.”

To anybody else there is much to understand. They both have a lot to explain.

Between them they have 32 years in prison to account for.

Sunny has already penned her account of 17 years behind bars. Peter has just published his story of 14 years inside Portlaoise. The trilogy will be complete when they eventually sit down to write about how their lives came together — lives they were not supposed to have.

More than three decades ago the now husband and wife sat in different courtrooms and were each sentenced to death.

In 1976 Sunny heard her verdict. She had been accused of playing a part in a roadside shooting which killed two Florida policemen. She was convicted on the basis of entirely contrived testimony. At the time nobody believed her.

In November 1980 Peter was told by the Special Criminal Court in Dublin that he would be put to death for joining a robbery in which two gardaí, Henry Byrne and John Morley, lost their lives.

Sunny and Peter first shared their stories in 2001. She had come to give a talk in Galway.

It was six years since his conviction was quashed. Peter connected from the back of the room.

He had found someone who could understand him, a person who had been tried, convicted and incarcerated in a case that should never have got near a court.

The couple share separate but very similar memories of the cell doors closing behind them for the first time and the moments they had to come to terms with their fate.

“My conditions were so drastic,” Sunny recalls. “I was completely isolated. No one spoke to me.

“I didn’t get out of my cell but for twice a week for a quick shower and then I was allowed into a small courtyard where I was allowed to smoke cigarettes.”

Denied a life with her two children she turned to yoga and concentrated on keeping herself sane.

Peter did likewise. He likes that. At the time, 7,000 miles apart, they were using the same tricks to cope.

“At first I was just angry at everybody, why wouldn’t you be? But then as I started to do yoga and meditation in my cell I began to read and study and understand how it all works.”

It took Sunny five years in isolation before her sentence was commuted to what was supposed to be a life behind bars.

Peter did not have to wait as long before the cabinet decided not to hang him and his two coaccused.

Ireland does not have the same association with the death penalty as America.

However, in 1980 it was still on the statute books and the three newly convicted men had been found guilty of murdering two gardaí in Roscommon.

Peter believed the State would follow through and the discussion among the wardens was whether or not a dedicated gallows would be erected in Portlaoise.

“If you go to court and you are sentenced to death. And you are then taken down to a prison and you are examined by a doctor for the first time, even though you’ve never been examined before.

“And they take you into an isolation cell and say there are going to be two jailers in charge of you 24-7. And they are going to be with you all night. And the light can’t be switched off.

“And the conditions are appalling. You are going to believe they are serious about what they are doing, otherwise why would they do all that,” he said.

During that time the country debated on what should be done.

It was 1981 when Charles Haughey ultimately decided it would be politically ruinous to send Peter and his two coaccused, Colm O’Shea and Patrick McCann, to the gallows.

This was a time of hunger strikes and escalating violence and the government was not about to strain leniency.

Peter was told he would face 40 years of servitude.

He was denied leave to appeal and there was little to suggest his prospects were ever going to change.

Peter Pringle was not plucked out of obscurity by gardaí trying to find the men who killed their colleagues.

He was a known republican with links to the political wing of the volatile splinter group the INLA.

But in the mid-1970s he left all this behind him as he faced into his own personal struggles.

In his book, About Time, he lays out his drinking, his affairs, his failings and his membership of the IRA.

He was the son of a garda who felt angry at the poverty and unemployment around the city.

He was a strong-willed and vocal teenager. He sought out Sinn Féin as a solution.

In time, he joined the IRA and was jailed in Mountjoy. He was interned without trial for two years in the Curragh camp.

He went on active service in the north in the 1960s and organised the Dublin unit of the official IRA, which had crumbled during the period of internment.

“My youthful analysis was that because the country was divided and because the island of Ireland wasn’t united it couldn’t possibly arrive at a harmonious and economically efficient situation because after all, the industrial six counties was taken from us... hence my interest in the IRA.

“My contribution was very little but I was there,” he said.

He wrestled with the prospect of what would happen if he was called on to kill somebody. He ultimately left the IRA when the provisional movement took over.

He said he did not believe in the policy of using British state agents, such as the RUC or the BBC, to pass on bomb warnings. This posed too great a risk.

He also had difficulties with the right-wing motivations among of some of the new leaders.

“I couldn’t go with them because I couldn’t go with the right-wing. Because I knew they hadn’t been active in the period when we were trying to do something in a social sense,” he said.

In a brief period in 1975, between February and November, he took up an invitation to join the IRSP, the political arm of the INLA.

He said after an IRSP speaking tour in Europe, he parted company with the IRA and its offshoots for good.

However, he was still on the watch list of usual suspects, especially in the west of Ireland where there would not have been a heavy concentration of active members.

At the time he worked as a fisherman and he was not always easy to trace.

His marriage had broken up and he was not living with his family in Donegal. He was working on trawlers but drank heavily.

ON MONDAY July 7, 1980 he decided to go visit his children in Killybegs but he “made the mistake of stopping in a local pub to buy a bottle of whiskey”.

“My journey to Killybegs, and my best of intentions regarding my children, became yet another binge of drinking in and around Galway, which lasted almost 12 days.

“Those days and nights passed in a drunken haze, eating nothing and sleeping fitfully,” he wrote in About Time.

During those 12 days he lent his car to somebody and did not get it back. Towards the end of his binge he learned from somebody in a pub that detectives were looking for him.

He had made a plan to get to his solicitor before he was brought in for questioning.

Again, he was distracted with drink and was eventually discovered by detectives upstairs in his friend’s house, with his beard shaved and his hair dyed.

When they arrested Peter, the gardaí claimed to have made him deliver a confession of sorts. This was used against him in court. It was taken from him on the second day of questioning.

But he said never uttered the words he is supposed to have said.

He said he merely acknowledged that he knew that the gardaí believed he was involved.

There was other questionable evidence in the file sent to the director of public prosecutions.

The third accomplice in the crime was believed to have been shot by one of the slain gardaí.

When Peter was arrested he had no injuries and his blood type was different from the stains found at the back of the getaway car.

Fibres from a jumper were also found in the car and efforts were made to link these to the top he had borrowed from his friend before his arrest. But the scientific unreliability of the subsequent fibre tests was not flagged.

While they were looking for Peter, gardaí had also been hunting for another suspect but did not let this be known.

Peter believes they even had somebody surrounded in a woodland. But that search was called off when Peter was lifted from his friend’s house and the suspect got away.

Worse still, one of the prosecution witnesses had not said what the book of evidence claimed he had said.

If this statement had been true it would have placed Peter in a position where he could have stolen the getaway car used in the robbery.

That evidence was critical in Peter’s case. But he had a strong alibi.

“At the time the car was stolen I was out in the Aran Islands delivering concrete blocks,” he said.

In the book Peter recalls the trip to the islands, the difficulty reaching the piers due to tides and the witnesses he had to the trip.

“If the truth had of been put into that man’s statement, had he been asked to make a statement, he would have told the truth and I couldn’t have been convicted,” he said.

Locked in Portlaoise during the 1980s Peter pored over every flaw in his case.

A friend had access to a college law library and used to photocopy books for him.

Peter picked holes in the testimony of pathologist John Harbison.

His family used to visit, especially his son Thomas who was elected an independent TD for Donegal south west in the last general election.

Peter wrote 600 letters to lawyers, journalists, politicians and clergymen.

All this time there were two people who could have done more than anyone had they spoken up. They could have ensured he never spent a night behind bars.

Colm O’Shea and Patrick McCann stood trial alongside Peter. They remain in prison and their convictions stand. Had they told police that Peter was not in their company on July 7, 1980, the case against him would have fallen apart.

He was angry at O’Shea and McCann for not speaking up, especially on those first nights together in Portlaoise. But his attitude softened.

“Each of them was defending themselves, they were pleading not guilty and therefore they could say nothing.

“If they were going to say anything, then they were not going to have a defence. And remember the conviction carried a mandatory death sentence. So they weren’t interested in discussing the case with me.

“They never discussed the case with me, not ever. In fact I never had a conversation with Colm O’Shea in the whole time I was in there,” he said.

To this day, and despite recent appeals to the courts, the two men have never spoken up. The controversial evidence pieced together against Peter stood.

It took until May 1995 before the Court of Criminal Appeal eventually vindicated his campaign.

Peter has not let go. He has argued the gardaí used the wrong law to detain him on the first day and he was not lawfully sentenced.

He has been working to get a civil case back into court and, without the money to hire a senior counsel, has only recently managed to secure representation.

He is hopeful that early next year this will take him back into a courtroom which he left in 1995 into a scrum of family, friends, and photographers.

For all they shared, the memories of his release day are very different to Sunny’s in October 1992.

She still keeps a picture of herself in court, chained to her chair, when the decision was reached.

Her lawyers and friends had been told it would be at least two hours before the paperwork was processed. But her’s was ready in 15 minutes.

“They put me out the door, with my box, and said have a nice life and left me there just outside the door and I was like ‘oh my god’ what do I do now. Nobody told me what I could do or couldn’t do.

“I didn’t dare take a step forward or backward because they might shoot me. It might be a trick. So I just stood there for quite a while.”

She finally approached two policemen smoking and asked them to mind her box. They did not. Eventually she took a chance.

“I walked a couple of feet away and I waited, and nobody yelled at me and nobody shot me. So I took a few more steps and again it was okay.

“I held this paper in my hand, because they gave me my release paper, and I held that in my hand like a talisman in front of me like sometimes you would see people holding a cross for vampires.”

She spotted a toddler and approached him just to say hello to somebody. He smiled back.

She could see the stairwell down to the street and, feeling exhilarated, began to realise that “freedom meant I didn’t have to ask to take two steps forward”.

“I just started to run. And I ran and I ran and I hit the bottom of the stairs and I just kept on running. I was just so happy.

“It was evening, there was the sun and the moon and the wind and me.

“And I just ran and ran and ran,” she said.

Eventually she ran into Peter’s arms and into a cottage in Galway.

The frustration, isolation and anger they both felt receded to make space for the joy encapsulated in Sunny’s run around the block.

Unless Peter’s civil action is heard and succeeds they will have to continue to rely on their poultry, vegetables and goats to get by.

But Sunny said they will not let that overshadow the lives that were once supposed to be taken from them.

“If you take yourself too seriously, especially when you are sentenced to death, it can get really depressing.”

About Time: Surviving Ireland’s Death Row by Peter Pringle is published by History Press Ireland. It will be launched in Hodges Figgis Dublin at 6.30pm on November 9

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