Jimmy Ennis has been behind bars for over 50 years. At the time of his incarceration, he was a man of such violence that he was regarded as an immediate threat to society. He is the longest serving inmate of the Irish prison system.
In 1964, he killed a farmer in the course of a robbery. George Applebe was 54 years of age, a married man, who farmed his land in Watergrasshill, Co Cork. Ennis broke into Applebe’s home and killed him with an iron bar.
At the time, he was only out of prison a matter of weeks, having served a sentence for an assault on a woman in Kildare in which he used a knife, and left her for dead. He has been inside since.
Now, in his seventies, he is understood to be institutionalised, and probably incapable of adapting to the basics if released.
John Shaw is the second longest serving prison in the system. He and an accomplice Geoffrey Evans were jailed for life in 1976 for the murders of two young women, Mary Duffy and Elizabeth Plunkett, both of whom were 23-years-of-age. Both women had been sexually assaulted. Evans subsequently told the gardaí that they had intended killing a woman each week before they were apprehended.
Evans died last year. Shaw is still in prison, and unlikely to ever be released.
In terms of longevity behind bars, next on the list are Colm O’Shea and Pat McCann.
They were initially sentenced to death in 1980 for the murder of two gardaí in the course of a robbery. That case was dealt with on these pages last Saturday in a piece that was primarily focused on Peter Pringle, who had also been convicted of the murders, but his conviction was overturned in 1995.
O’Shea, who is from Sunday’s Well, and McCann are still in prison nearly 33 years after the crime. By any standards, they were dangerous criminals. They were involved in an armed robbery in Ballaghadereen, Co Roscommon, in July 1980. As their getaway vehicle was barrelling out of town, it collided with a garda car which had been alerted about the robbery.
Garda Henry Byrne was shot where he sat in the front of the garda car. Detective Garda John Morley was shot in a subsequent exchange of fire between him and the robbers. O’Shea was arrested soon after. He had been shot in the chest. McCann was also arrested within hours.
Both were sentenced to death for capital murder, but the following year President Paddy Hillary granted them a reprieve, commuting the sentence to 40 years without parole. (Pringle received the same sentences but his conviction was eventually set aside) Since then, O’Shea and McCann have been in prison. Most of their respective sentences have been served in Portlaoise.
My interest in their incarceration stemmed from the investigation I undertook in relation to Peter Pringle’s case. Presumably like most people who have any memory of the murders of the two gardaí, I had forgotten about the perpetrators, and was surprised that they were still locked up.
Among the general public there is understandably little or no sympathy for criminals who murder, but a question must surely be asked about the continued incarceration of these men. After 32 years, have they paid their debt to society?
The sentence the men received should be put in context. They were both loosely associated with a Republican faction, Saor Éire, although it had officially disbanded in 1975. The general impression is that the robbery was a criminal act using the cover of violent Republicanism. Had they been successful (the takings were around £35,000), it’s highly unlikely the money would have gone anywhere but into the men’s pockets.
There was outrage at the crime. The dead gardaí were highly respected. Their deaths left five young children without a father. Morley was well-known for having played inter-county football. Once it was determined that the death sentence wouldn’t be carried out, the Government quite obviously decided to throw away the key.
Both men are now well into the autumn of lives, having spent most of their adulthood behind bars. In this country, as in most western states, the criminal justice system attempts to leave the prospect of some light at the end of the tunnel, even for those who have committed horrendous crimes. In recent years, for example, Malcolm McArthur has been released.
There are people who believe that a life sentence should mean the natural life. There are others who believe murder should be punishable by the death penalty. But in this society, the system maintains a view that only in the most exceptional cases should an inmate be retained within the system for their natural life.
O’Shea and McCann do not pose a threat to society. Their crime was violent, reckless and callous, but they are not in the same category as the likes of Shaw and Evans, who went out to kill, or Jimmy Ennis, who was apparently possessed of an impulse towards violence that he couldn’t control.
By contrast, O’Shea and McCann were desperados, who went out to rob rather than kill. They deserved a lengthy prison sentence, but should they have to serve out the full 40 years? The average term of imprisonment on a life sentence is 18 years, and even allowing that the specific offence was capital murder, they are heading for twice that span now.
When the subject of their incarceration came up on RTÉ’s Liveline last year, a few contributors made the point that they must serve their full sentence, that they deserve every day of it.
Notably, the only sympathetic contributions were from two prison officers, who know the inside of prisons, the bad that men have done, and have seen the men as they are today, rather than the killers that they were.
Legally, the pair haven’t a leg to stand on. In 2011, O’Shea brought an action against his continued detention based on the Good Friday Agreement, but it was thrown out by the High Court.
They can only be released by the minister for justice, although in their case it’s unclear what exact mechanism he could use. In any event, this minister or any other is unlikely to go out on a limb for two forgotten criminals, irrespective of how long they have served.
Politically, it could only be a loser. If objections were raised from the murdered men’s families, or elements within the gardaí, then Alan Shatter might find himself embroiled in controversy. And political reaction rather than any nod towards mercy or compassion is what generally informs ministers’ decisions in these cases.
Is there a role for compassion in dealing with criminals who have been incarcerated for half a lifetime? Are such individuals deemed to be completely beyond any human empathy or consideration, even this far removed from their crime?
Surely a time comes when a debt has been paid, a punishment served, when a society can bring itself to say enough is enough.