The State has finally apologised to Martin Conmey, who, in 1973, was convicted of killing a woman. Michael Clifford reports on the wrongs of the case against him.
WHEN I first met Martin Conmey 15 years ago, I didn’t hold out much hope that a day like yesterday would ever arrive.
Conmey was in the early stages of trying to clear his name, having been convicted in 1973 of killing a young woman who was both a neighbour and a family friend.
His complete adult life had been dominated by a grievous sense of injustice. I had been introduced to the case by the late private investigator Billy Flynn, who had cracked open the malpractice by some gardaí in Donegal, which led to the Morris tribunal.
Martin’s case was compelling, but the odds were stacked against him. The passage of time, and the instinctive reaction of the State to prioritise its interests rather than those of the citizens, left little hope that justice would be done.
But it has come to pass.
Martin Conmey has received an apology from the State in the High Court for being labelled a killer and committed to prison.
“The minister for justice and equality, on behalf of the State, wishes to formally acknowledge that Mr Martin Conmey, who was convicted of certain offences in 1973 and served a term of imprisonment, was a victim of a miscarriage of justice,” the State’s lawyer, Shane Murphy, read to the court.
“The State apologises unreservedly to Mr Conmey. The State regrets the pain and loss experienced by Mr Conmey as a result of his imprisonment and has taken steps to pay appropriate compensation to him.”
Martin Conmey is now 65. When he was 20, his world exploded. He and his family were part of a tightly knit community living in the Porterstown Lane area of Ratoath, Co Meath. Ten families had been relocated there from the West of Ireland in the 1940s and had remained close down through the decades.
One of those families were the Lynskeys, whose 19-year-old daughter Una disappeared on October 12, 1971. She had bade her cousin goodbye at the mouth of the lane after both had got off a bus taking them home from work in Dublin.
A major search was launched and gardaí from the then fledgling murder squad were drafted in to investigate. The focus came on three local youths: Martin Conmey, 24-year-old Dick Donnelly, and 18-year-old Martin Kerrigan.
All three were taken to Trim Garda Station and questioned a week after Una’s disappearance. Other local young men were also taken in. Most of those questioned would subsequently claim they were abused in custody, something the gardaí have always denied.
Conmey and Kerrigan made statements that were vague, but contained admissions that they had met Una on the evening she disappeared.
There had been a sighting that evening of an unusual car in the locale, but it appears the gardaí quickly discounted that lead and focused on the young locals.
Tensions were heightened in the community. Somebody sketched a noose on the road outside Conmey’s home. The word “murderer” was daubed outside Kerrigan’s home.
On December 10, Una’s badly decomposed body was discovered some 32km away in the Dublin Mountains. It wasn’t possible to determine the cause of death.
Nine days later, at 11pm, Kerrigan was abducted near his home. Some hours later, Una’s two brothers, Sean and James, and their cousin, John Gaughan, returned to the neighbourhood. Everybody knew they had taken Kerrigan, whose body was soon found not far from where Una’s body had been discovered. The message was clear. A life for a life.
The two Lynskeys and their cousin were charged with the murder of Martin Kerrigan, but ultimately were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. They had claimed Martin Kerrigan was still alive when they left him.
Six months later, Martin Conmey and Dick Donnelly went on trial for the murder of Una Lynskey. The whole thrust of the case against them were the statements made in custody by Conmey and other friends of the accused. No motive was ever established. Evidence was heard that the pair and Kerrigan had gone socialising with girlfriends on the evening Una had disappeared.
Summing up the case, Mr Justice Seamus Henchy told the jury. “If these were the murderers of Una Lynskey, if these young men had done that, had gone afterwards, gone for a sort of evening with their girlfriends to pubs and so forth, and of course that would be a very callous thing to do if Una Lynskey had been left dying or dead.
“These girls [the girlfriends] have given evidence that they were with the young men that night and they enjoyed themselves.”
The pair were found guilty of manslaughter after a jury deliberated for 11 hours until 2.30am. Donnelly, who hadn’t made a statement in custody, appealed successfully against the verdict. Martin Conmey spent three years in prison.
It’s conjecture as to whether events outside the jury room played any role in the verdict.
Crude justice had already been dispensed to the two defendants’ friend, Martin Kerrigan. The men who had killed him had been convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder. The idea that they may have killed the wrong man was beyond comprehension. Ergo, Kerrigan’s two friends must have been guilty of killing Una Lynskey.
Except they weren’t, as the Court of Criminal Appeal and now the High Court have acknowledged.
The other issue was the statements which formed the prosecution case. The murder squad that had conducted the interviews was a relatively new unit in 1971. Over the following decades, major controversy would arise in a number of cases about how statements were obtained by the unit. The Sallins train robbery, the Kerry babies, and other cases featured allegations of mistreatment of suspects in custody.
In time, the squad would form the core of a group that came to be known as “the heavy gang”. The head of the squad was Detective Inspector John Courtney, who was personally the subject of a number of allegations of garda brutality in various courts and a tribunal. He was also in charge of the investigation into the death of Una Lynskey.
There is no record of any court or inquiry ever accepting that Courtney abused suspects. He was never charged with assault and has always maintained he never ill-treated anybody in custody.
All of the allegations about mistreatment would only emerge from the mid-1970s on, long after the file on the killing of Una Lynskey had been closed.
In 2010, at the Court of Criminal Appeal hearing into Martin Conmey’s case, Courtney said none of the individuals in question were abused in custody. “There was no such thing as the heavy gang in the Garda Síochána,” he told the court on that occasion.
For Martin Conmey, the long, slow road to justice began in 1989. By then, he had, against all his better instincts, accepted that he would never clear his name. He was watching the TV in October 1989 and saw the release of the Guildford Four at the Old Bailey. The impassioned cries of the late Gerry Conlon as he emerged from the court brought tears to Martin’s eyes.
“I remember my son Ray was only six months there in the room that evening and I’ll never forget it. I was crying. I went into the kitchen and Anne (his wife) asked me what’s wrong. I said I was I going to clear my name, if not for me then for my son.”
So began the long road. In 2010, the Court of Criminal Appeal overturned the manslaughter verdict. In 2014, he received a miscarriage of justice certificate. Then yesterday, the State finally acknowledged a wrong that was done to one of his citizens.
He was supported along the road by his family and many of those from the close-knit community that was torn apart 35 years ago, including a cousin of Una Lynskey, who had married Martin’s sister Mary, and two of Martin Kerrigan’s sisters.
Fittingly, Dick Donnelly was in court with him yesterday. The two have travelled the hard miles together since that fateful evening they were hauled into Trim Garda Station and told they were suspects in the killing of their friend and neighbour, Una Lynskey.
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