MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Peter Pringle is no death-row poster boy

Peter Pringle on a beach near his home in Galway. Picture:Andrew Downes

THE email dropped with an invitation to ‘A musical evening with Judy Collins in celebration of The Sunny Center’, writes Michael Clifford.

Judy Collins is a veteran American singer known for her political activity. The Sunny Centre, apparently, is “a sanctuary of healing and rehabilitation for the wrongfully incarcerated”.

Based in Connemara, it is the home of Peter Pringle and Sunny Jacobs who invite into their home people who have been freed after being wrongly imprisoned. The evening in question is a fundraiser.

All very attractive stuff for a wet liberal like your columnist but unfortunately the performance is in New York with a price of $250 a skull. What caught the eye was the detail attaching to photos of the hosts on the invite. One was “Sunny Jacobs, 17 years on death row”. The second was “Peter Pringle, 15 years on death row”. Pringle is the father of the hard-working and conscientious Donegal TD, Thomas Pringle.

Peter Pringle was not on death row for 15 years, and such a statement is highly misleading. It invites readers to assume his experience resonates with that of some of the appalling miscarriage of justices experienced in the USA by many, including his partner Jacobs. The reality is that Pringle’s case is from another world. He, along with two other men, was convicted of the murder of two gardaí in 1980. Detective John Morley and Garda Henry Byrne had five young children between them when they were shot dead during a robbery in Co Roscommon. The killers were acting under a republican flag of convenience.

Two of them, Colm O’Shea and Pat McCann, were captured in the vicinity. The third man managed to flee the scene, but gardaí believed him to be Pringle. He was arrested in Galway 12 days later after a manhunt. He had shaved off his beard and dyed his hair. He denied any involvement and later claimed he had been on a drunken bender since the day before the robbery.

The invitation to a musical evening in New York at $250 a head for victims of corrupt criminal justice systems.
The invitation to a musical evening in New York at $250 a head for victims of corrupt criminal justice systems.

The evidence against him was largely circumstantial, including sightings of him in the Roscommon area in the immediate aftermath of the robbery and evidence that he’d been in the company of the other men in the days prior to the robbery, despite claiming he hadn’t seen them in months. There was forensic evidence involving hair and paint samples and gun residue. This was in the days before the development of DNA evidence. The clinching aspect to his conviction was a partial admission while in custody.

In October 1980, the Special Criminal Court found all three guilty of the capital murder of police officers and sentenced them to death. The last execution in the country had occurred in 1954 and there was no chance the sentence would be carried out. It was duly commuted to 40 years in prison the following May. Pringle spent six months, not 15 years, on death row in a country that had long ceased to carry out executions. Capital punishment was finally abolished in 1990.

In 1995, Pringle succeeded in an appeal against his conviction. He had discovered evidence about a blood sample of his that had not been examined in his trial. The appeal judges decided that a dispute over the sample between two gardaí may have given rise to a credibility issue of Garda evidence. As such, the conviction was deemed unsafe and it was up to the State to try Pringle again.

Pringle attempted to portray this development as a miscarriage of justice. In a memoir entitled Surviving Ireland’s Death Row, he claimed evidence was “concocted” by retired detective superintendent Tom Connolly. In fact, the appeal judges made a point of noting they were not suggesting any officers had acted anyway dishonestly.

(The book, published three years ago, prompted Connolly to write his own memoir which included a more detailed account of the case, backed up by records.) The retrial never went ahead because the senior officer who had sanctioned an extension to Pringle’s time in custody 15 years earlier had since died. That was a lucky break for the recently-released Pringle.

A week after his release, his solicitor wrote to the State demanding £50,000 as an interim payment for wrongful imprisonment. The demand was given short shrift. Since then, Pringle has not initiated any action that could result in obtaining a certificate of miscarriage and a huge compensation payout. Over the last 20 years he has frequently stated that he is still “trying” to get his case into the High Court, but it’s unclear who on earth might be stopping him.

Despite that, appalling miscarriages of justice do occur, usually due to criminal conduct by members of the gardaí. There is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that this happened in Pringle’s case, which might explain his reluctance to sue the State.

After his release he married Sunny Jacobs, who was on death row in the US and was subsequently exonerated. Pringle could have retreated into obscurity, grateful for the lucky break he copped. Instead, he and Jacobs travel the world speaking out about wrongful convictions and abolishing the death penalty. O’Shea and McCann were released in 2013 after 33 years in prison. While their crime was terrible, they have paid a commensurate debt to society. They never publicly revealed the identity of the third man.

Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle
Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle

To some extent, Pringle has become a poster boy in international anti-death penalty and wrongful conviction circles. Organisations like the Innocence Project, which tackle suspected miscarriages of justice, invite him to speak of his experiences. Just last year, he was a guest at a conference in Dublin organised by the Irish chapter of the Innocence Project.

In the US, and other countries, most victims of wrongful conviction are non-white and poorly educated, which renders them more vulnerable to miscarriages of justice. Pringle is reputedly charming and intelligent and obviously Caucasian. Perhaps these attributes are highly valued in putting forward examples of those who are wronged.

But where does Pringle fit in such a milieu? Will the wealthy liberals who will attend Judy Collins’ performance assume that with his advertised 15 years on death row, his case resonates with those who have been subjected to sub-human experiences in the US criminal justice system?

A more pertinent question might be considered by the activists who work tirelessly to exonerate the wrongly convicted and the condemned. Should they be providing Pringle with the kudos that he enjoys? Surely the integrity and the importance of their campaigns demands that they are more discerning in whom they present as examples of poor or corrupt criminal justice systems.

A Life Upholding The Law by Tom Connolly is published by O’Brien Press

Surviving Ireland’s Death Row by Peter Pringle is published by History Press


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