WEEKEND BIG READ: Surviving Ireland's death row

Peter Pringle was condemned to death for the murder of two gardaí, but was freed on appeal. In his book he claimed a miscarriage of justice. Not everyone agrees, writes Michael Clifford

WEEKEND BIG READ: Surviving Ireland's death row

TOM Connolly was getting through his Christmas reading with a growing sense of unease. His book of choice was entitled, About Time, Surviving Ireland’s Death Row, a first person account by Peter Pringle, who had been condemned to death for the murder of two gardaí in 1980.

Pringle’s case had become something of a cause célèbre before his release on appeal 15 years after his conviction. Campaigners on his behalf bracketed him with the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, and Nicky Kelly. In 1995, the appeal court set aside the original verdict, and the State chose not to prosecute him again.

Connolly had a special interest in the case. Long retired as a detective superintendent, he had interviewed Pringle during the investigation, and had recorded an admission that was central to the case against him.

Connolly has no problem with the appeal court’s verdict. He has, however, numerous issues with Pringle’s book, which was published last November and proclaims it has been written “to set the record straight”. A quote on the cover says it is “a compelling story of injustice and perseverance’. The quote is not attributed.

“My problem is that in years to come people might read this book as an accurate account of what happened,” Connolly says. “It reads like a miscarriage of justice case, but the only miscarriage of justice in the case was the murder of the two gardaí.

“Mr Pringle was entitled to his verdict in the Court of Criminal Appeal, but he’s not entitled to portray his version as setting the record straight. It’s far from that.”

THE MURDERS

At 2.40pm on Jul 7, 1980, three men entered the Bank of Ireland in Ballaghadreen, Co Roscommon waving guns. All wore balaclavas. One of them shouted, “Everybody down.” The manager was instructed to get the keys and open various boxes.

One of the men stationed himself outside the bank, wielding a shotgun. A garda car pulled up and the armed robber ordered the two unarmed officers out at gunpoint and told them to lie on the ground. The three men made off in a blue Ford Cortina that had been stolen four days previously in Athlone.

The men changed cars nearby, setting the robbery vehicle alight and switching to a white Ford Cortina, which had been stolen in Salthill the previous week. The takings from the robbery amounted to around £35,000.

A few miles outside the town, the car was intercepted by a garda patrol car from Castlerea, which was responding to a call about the robbery. The two vehicles collided on the road. Garda Henry O’Byrne was shot dead in a hail of gunfire as he sat in the patrol car. The three robbers left their vehicle, and two of them were subsequently involved in an exchange of shots with Detective Garda John Morley, who had an Uzi submachine gun. Morley was fatally wounded.

In the subsequent confusion, two Volkswagon cars were hijacked in succession by two members of the gang in their attempt to flee.

Within hours, Pat McCann and Colm O’Shea were arrested, both in the broad vicinity of the murder scene. O’Shea had been shot in the chest, a wound he was believed to have sustained from Detective Morley’s weapon. The case against both of them was overwhelming.

Both men had been involved on the fringes of Republican politics and paramilitarism. Subsequently, it was claimed that they were members of either the IRSP, or its then paramiliarty wing, the INLA. The IRSP denied any connection with the men.

The third man escaped, prompting a major Garda manhunt. On Jul 19, 12 days after the robbery, Peter Pringle was arrested in a friend’s house in Galway. He had shaved his beard and dyed his hair. He was taken in, questioned, and charged with the robbery and murders.

The circumstances of the crime, and the death of two young gardaí, both parents of very young children, led to national outrage. Morley had been particularly well known in GAA circles, having had a long inter-county career with his native Mayo.

All three accused pleaded not guilty before the Special Criminal Court when the trial opened on Oct 6, 1980.

The case against Pringle had many elements, but the main plank concerned a statement he was alleged to have made in custody. According to Detective Sergeant Tom Connolly, Pringle had said at one stage: “I know that you know I was involved, but on the advice of my solicitor I am saying nothing and you will have to prove it all the way.” Pringle claimed at the time that what he actually said was “I know you think I did it.”

After a 23-day trial, all three were found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted the following May to 40 years in prison without parole.

Pringle continued to maintain his innocence and fight for his freedom. He familiarised himself with the law. Eventually, in the early 1990s, he was in a position to bring a challenge to his conviction on the basis of new evidence he had uncovered.

The Court of Criminal Appeal ruled in 1995 that his conviction was unsafe. It ordered a re-trial, but a week later, the DPP entered a nolle prosequi, meaning it wasn’t proceeding with the retrial.

Since then Pringle has been a free man. His two co-accused are still in prison, 32 years after the crime, and are now among the longest serving prisoners in the State. Neither has publicly spoken about the identity of the third man who was present with them that fateful day.

THE APPEAL

In Pringle’s book, he maintains that he was framed, that evidence against him was “concocted”. There have been incidences of such miscarriage of justices in the State and in the UK, but Pringle provides little in the way of detail to back up the assertion.

His conviction was set aside by the appeal court, but that alone does not point towards a miscarriage of justice. All that indicates of itself was that the trial did not hear an aspect of the evidence that may or may not have given rise to a doubt in the judges’ minds as to Pringle’s guilt.

For Tom Connolly, who was central to the case, this distinction is crucial, and goes to the heart of what Connolly sees as the glaring flaw in Pringle’s account in his book.

The appeal verdict centred around an incident that occurred when Pringle was being interviewed by the gardaí in the days after his arrest in 1980. During the interview, Pringle suffered a minor nosebleed. Connolly was the detective sergeant interviewing the suspect at the time, and he offered Pringle a paper tissue. After Pringle daubed his nose, Connolly retrieved the tissue. The detective sergeant made note of the incident in his notebook.

According to Connolly, he then passed the tissue onto a detective in the ballistics section, Pat Ennis, for analysis. Pringle had refused to give a blood sample, so this might either establish or eliminate a match with blood taken from one of the hijacked cars.

Connolly says that the following morning, he and his colleague Ennis agreed that the sample was too small to extract a positive identification. As a result, the tissue was discarded. In his statement prepared for the trial, Connolly made no mention of the tissue as its presence had come to nothing.

His colleague Ennis disputes all this. When it was put to him 14 years after the incident, he said that he never received a tissue from Connolly.

Pringle’s appeal was based on this conflict, and the fact that the incident had never featured in his initial trial, where it might have thrown doubt on Connolly’s credibility. Crucially, Pringle’s legal team had possession of Connolly’s notebook during the trial, but nobody appears to have noticed the detail about the tissue.

The appeal court ruled that the evidence about the nosebleed had thrown up something new. “The significance of this new evidence is this: Sergeant Ennis is very clear that if he had got the tissue he would have passed it on to the State laboratory.

“If Sergeant Connolly did not hand it over to Sergeant Ennis, why does the notebook entry say that he did? And if the notebook entry is unreliable in that regard is it unreliable with regard to the entry of the alleged admission of involvement in the crimes being investigated?”

The appeal was granted on the basis that if the conflict between the gardaí had been aired in the original trial it “might have raised a reasonable doubt in the mind of the Special Criminal Court resulting in a rejection of the disputed statement.”

The court did not suggest that either gardaí was being dishonest, merely that there was a conflict in their accounts.

The court also pointed out that had the sample been examined, it would have matched samples taken from the scene of the shoot-out, but this blood type also applied to 12% of the population.

In his book, Pringle portrays the appeal and its protagonists in a very different light. “He had given a number of different accounts of this matter,” Pringle wrote of Connolly, although he didn’t identify the detective by name. In fact, what Connolly had done was merely omit the tissue incident from his statement on the basis that it had come to nothing.

“When he was called into evidence in 1995 he concocted a totally different and previously unheard, version of events surrounding the blood sample. He cited another garda officer, who was present in court, as his witness. But when that officer was called into evidence he refuted the first officer’s version of events, stating it had never happened.”

The inference leaves it open to the reader to conclude that the garda — Connolly — was making up stories in order to somehow target Pringle. There is absolutely no evidence to back up such an inference, and the appeal court made clear that it was not suggesting that either of the garda officers were lying.

In fact, the ruling said the opposite. “It would, in the court’s view, be wholly unreasonable to expect witnesses to retain over a period of approximately 14 years a clear and unambiguous recollection of events.”

The verdict in Pringle’s trial was thus ruled “unsafe and unsatisfactory“, but there was no suggestion of a miscarriage of justice, nothing that would even raise the possibility of cops framing Pringle.

As the verdict was set aside, a new trial was ordered. However, there was a major problem for the prosecution. The superintendent who had granted an extension to Pringle’s period of detention after his arrest back in 1980, had since died.

The admission that Pringle was alleged to have made could not therefore be included in the evidence of any new trial. As a result, the DPP entered a nolle prosecui. Pringle gave no explanation of this crucial aspect to the case in his book.

A week after that decision, Pringle’s solicitor wrote to the Minister for Justice asking for an interim compensation payment ahead of any further legal action against the State. A figure of £50,000 was referenced by comparison with the payment made to the Birmingham Six after their convictions were overturned.

No payment was made to Pringle, and nearly 18 years later he has still to bring an action against the state.

THE EVIDENCE

Peter Pringle is an innocent man in the eyes of the law. A reader of his self-penned life story might be left with the impression that he was tried and convicted only on the basis of “concocted” evidence.

The book does provide his version of what happened in the crucial days of the murders and the following 12 days until his arrest.

He had told his boss on a fishing trawler that he was going from his home in Galway to Killybegs to see his wife, from whom he was estranged.

“I made the mistake of stopping in a local pub to buy a bottle of whiskey for the road — my journey to Killybegs, and my best 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.”

He said he spent most of that time in his friend’s house where he was arrested. He said he didn’t hear about the robbery and murders for two days after the event, even though it was huge news across the country.

The gardaí, for their part, had compiled a case against him that went far beyond the admission that he disputes, and which formed the central plank of his original conviction.

First there was the circumstantial evidence. When interviewed, he claimed not to have seen McCann for a number of months and to barely know O’Shea. Yet the gardaí had compiled accounts of sightings of the three men together in a Galway hotel twice in the five days before the murders. They had also retrieved from Pringle’s car a fingerprint matching O’Shea’s on a copy of the Irish Press dated Jul 2.

On the day of the murders, in the hours prior to the bank robbery, workmen at Knock spoke to men travelling in two Ford Cortinas and one offered a description that matched Pringle, who is a tall man and had a long beard, before he shaved it off in the days that followed. The robbers used two Cortinas, one for the robbery, the second for the getaway.

Residents in Dunmore, a village nine miles from where the robbers abandoned the last hijacked car, provided accounts of sightings of a man matching Pringle’s description in the two days after the murders.

At least six witnesses either gave descriptions of Pringle, or picked his photo out from a large group of photos. A soft drinks bottle retrieved in the village contained his fingerprints.

At around 7.30pm, on Jul 9 — two days after the murders — two gardaí identified Pringle driving a car on the Galway — Loughrea road. The car had been stolen earlier that day in Tubberbracken, north Galway. This was the same day that Pringle turned up at the house in Galway where he was subsequently arrested.

None of these strands of evidence would be enough to convict a man, and, if viewed in a certain light, some could be attributed to the meandering antics of somebody on the batter.

However, the gardaí’s case was based on the belief that Pringle did know the other two, that he had been sighted on the road to Ballaghadereen, had lived rough for two days after the robbery and murders, before returning to Galway in a stolen car.

Then there was the forensic evidence. Six wine wool fibres which matched those from the jumper he was wearing when arrested were found in the white Cortina. Identical fibres were also lifted from both of the Volkswagons, which had been hijacked in succession after the shoot-out.

More identical fibres were retrieved from the stolen car seen by the two gardaí heading towards Galway. The trial judges found that it wasn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the fibres had come from Pringle’s jumper, but the court accepted that they were identical.

Three flecks of paint in a pocket of his jeans matched others found in the back seat of the white Cortina, and flecks found in the pockets of McCann and O’Shea. Gunfire residue was also recovered from Pringle’s jeans.

Two grey hairs were found on the floor of the house where he was arrested. These matched hairs taken from the white Cortina used in the robbery. (By the time Pringle was arrested, he had dyed his hair red).

Again, the nature of the evidence was such that it wouldn’t have been sufficient alone for a conviction, but it all went towards the case for the prosecution.

The circumstances of his alleged admission were also notable. On the evening before the alleged admission, the evidence against him was outlined by a Superintendent Maher over a period of nearly two hours. Pringle replied, “I have nothing to say. I am speechless.”

Then, the following morning, Jul 21, he was questioned again. The man in whose house he had been arrested was brought in, and a number of questions were put to him in Pringle’s presence.

After that, according to the appeal court ruling: “Sergeant Connolly then again asked the applicant (Pringle) to tell the truth, as he outlined the forensic evidence which, he said, was available as a result of examinations of the white Cortina car and the two Volkswagen cars. Sergeant Connolly then referred to further evidence to the effect that the applicant had been seen in the village of Dunmore on Wednesday, Jul 9 driving a car in suspicious circumstances. It was at this point, according to Sergeant Connolly, that the applicant then said: ’I know that you know I was involved, but on the advice of my solicitor I am saying nothing’.”

Pringle has always denied making the admission.

In his book, he claims he was convicted on this admission alone. In fact, the Special Criminal Court also referenced the forensic evidence.

Again, it should be emphasised that his conviction was set aside on sound legal principles. But his allegation that he was framed is a completely different ballgame.

THE MEMOIRIST AND THE RETIRED COP

Pringle is now 74 and lives in Galway with his partner, Sonny Jacobs, an American woman who spent time on death row in the USA, for a crime for which she was subsequently cleared.

When contacted, he said he has a civil case pending against the State over his conviction. (It is now nearly 18 years since his conviction was set aside).

He didn’t wish to discuss any legal aspects of his case. He also reiterated that the book was written for his children and grandchildren and to set the record straight. (His son, Thomas Pringle, is an independent TD for Donegal South West).

When asked why he hadn’t named Connolly in the book — apart from a single reference of his surname — despite the retired garda being central to the conviction and appeal, Pringle said: “I didn’t use any names. That was my decision. I don’t have any animosity. I am not in conflict with anybody.”

He insisted that the book was “a fair reflection of what happened”.

When it was pointed out to him that his allegation about evidence being concocted was at variance with the judgement of the appeal court, he said: “It is a fact that evidence against me was concocted. I’ll prove anything I said in it (the book). You may find differences between a memoir and going through a judgement in detail.”

Pringle then made comparisons with his case and that of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and he mentioned the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries in the same vein.

“I’ve stated my case in the book, and the law case will be in court,” he said.

Connolly, a native of Clonakilty, retired from the force in 1994 as a detective superintendent after a 40-year career. He had been involved in some of the most high profile cases in the state as a member of what was known as the murder squad.

In 1975, he was awarded the highest award for bravery in the State, the Scott Medal, for disarming a dangerous criminal under threat to his own life.

He maintains that Pringle’s book gives an account that does not portray the case as it was investigated and prosecuted.

“The evidence is all there in the documentation and transcripts and it speaks for itself,” he said. Pringle, he said, was entitled to having his conviction set aside, but his account was not true to the facts.

“I found his account to be arrogant and haughty and a misrepresentation of the facts.”

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