Noel Long found guilty: Full story of how a conviction over Nora Sheehan’s 1981 death was finally secured

Historic case against Noel Long, who denied the charge, built on two main planks - forensic evidence and DNA profiling

On a hot summer’s day in 1981, Garda John B O’Sullivan used his hurley to make a pathway down a steep slope towards the Bandon River at Shippool Woods in Co Cork.

Peering through the briars, he could see an area where the grass and overgrowth had previously been flattened. He circled around, keen to avoid disturbing any potential evidence.

A body which two forestry workers had told him about was not visible from the roadway, but he could see a navy coat nearer the bank of the river, about 20 yards away. The garment was lying in briars that had grown to waist height.

A stench rose up as he approached and he could see blue bottles circling in the heavy air. He was just about able to make out the bruised and battered body of a semi-naked female lying partly on her back.


The woman’s unzipped navy pinafore had been violently pulled up over the head to such a degree that it left a large, strap-like bruise on the side of the neck. The collar of the dress was caught tightly under the jawbone and the remains of a pair of nylon tights clung to the left foot. A single shoe, its buckle catching his eye, lay nearby.

Left bereft of any dignity, the effects of nature had started to take hold.

While Garda O’Sullivan preserved the scene and waited for back up, he noted the tops had been knocked off some barley grass growing on the road side of an adjoining stone wall.

Garda O’Sullivan, who lived in accommodation adjoining the garda station in Inishannon, Co Cork, had been on duty on June 12th, 1981 when two forestry workers travelling by tractor called to the public office at around 3pm.

Upsetting discovery

The two men had been searching a rural woodland for dumped rubbish when they found what they initially thought was a dead pig before realising they had discovered the body of a woman. They appeared upset and told him it did not look good.

As Garda O’Sullivan was the only garda on duty in the village when the workers arrived, and as they were not equipped with walkie talkies at the time, he deputised his wife to accompany him to the scene. He drove the two workers and his wife back along a twisting section of road for 2½ miles until they pulled up at an area known as The Viewing Point.

Nora Sheehan was a 54-year-old mother of three who lived with her husband James in Ballyphehane on the south side of Cork city. James was somewhat older than Nora and did not live to see her killer brought to trial, dying in 1985. The couple had three sons, James Junior, Jeremiah and Hugh - two of whom were present for the opening of the trial.

Ms Sheehan had previously worked in a nearby hospital, but suffered some sort of fall there and ill health “whether arising from that or otherwise”, prosecution counsel Brendan Grehan SC told the jury.

Mr Grehan said Ms Sheehan was a familiar sight on the roads near her home, attempting to wave down cars and talking to people about the “goings-on” at the hospital. Neighbours would hear her shout “open the boots and let out the bodies”.

‘A bit eccentric’

James Sheehan told the Central Criminal Court his mother had a habit of waving at traffic, something he put down to her growing up in the countryside where “everyone used to pick everyone up”. He described her as “a bit eccentric” and as someone who would freely speak her mind.

On Saturday June 6th, 1981, two dogs had gotten into a fight near Ms Sheehan’s home and she was bitten on her left arm as she tried to separate them. She walked to the casualty department at South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital, where nurse Agnes Rice treated her for the significant wound at around 9.45pm. Ms Sheehan did not want the area sutured, so she was given a tetanus injection, after which the nurse applied an antibiotic spray and dressed the wound.

Ms Sheehan was “very thankful” to the staff at the hospital and wanted to leave money in the donation box.

Ms Rice, now retired, recalled that Ms Sheehan was formally dressed in a blue coat and a dress and was carrying a bag. She said Ms Sheehan wore a hat with a ribbon which she kept putting on and off “in an agitated way”. Ms Sheehan struck Ms Rice as being a “vulnerable person”.

Joan Holland was sitting in her boyfriend’s car at traffic lights near the hospital on the night of June 6th when she saw Ms Sheehan, who she knew, standing at the junction waving at cars. She remarked that something would happen to her sometime “with the way she was going on”. She noted that Ms Sheehan was far away from home, given she was used to seeing her nearer Ballyphehane.

At around 1.30am, John Murray was driving home from work when he saw Ms Sheehan standing at the junction of Vicars Road and the Togher Road in Cork city. He said she was waving at cars as they passed, a “thing she did”. He described her behaviour as “eccentric”.

The last sighting of Ms Sheehan was at 4.05am on June 7th, when Brian Coleman left his girlfriend’s house and saw a woman in a long overcoat on Vicars Street waving at cars.

Reported missing

Three days later on June 9th, James Sheehan, who was then 23, was contacted at work by a man who owned the corner shop near his home. The shop owner told him he needed to get home quickly as his father wanted him. When he arrived home to Ballyphehane, James found his father distressed and was told that his mother had been missing for the last three days. The two ment went to Togher Garda station and reported Ms Sheehan missing.

By happenstance, forensic scientist Dr Timothy Creedon was in Co Cork on June 12th, 1981 when Ms Sheehan’s body was recovered by gardaí just kilometres away from where he was holidaying in Inishannon. He attended at the scene in Shippool Woods in an observational capacity.

When Dr Creedon returned from his trip, he was tasked with examining swabs taken from Ms Sheehan. He found semen on a vaginal swab retrieved from the victim and preserved this on a microscopic slide. The slide was later archived in a large cabinet in the Forensic Science Laboratory.

The preservation of this key piece of evidence would prove to be of great significance in the decision to return Noel Long for trial 42 years later.

On the morning of June 16th, 1981 Supt Matthew Thorne stopped the then 32-year-old Long as he drove his blue Opel Kadett car on the Curraheen Road in Bishopstown. The senior garda sat into the front passenger seat and directed Long to drive to the Bridewell Garda station in Cork city, where the vehicle was parked in the station yard.

Forensic examination

The vehicle underwent a forensic examination, with now retired forensic scientist Dr Maureen Smith telling the trial she examined sellotape lifts taken from the inside and the boot area of the car to determine if there were any links between them and Ms Sheehan’s clothing.

Dr Smith removed nine black viscose fibres from the victim’s navy overcoat which matched black carpet fibres taken from the interior of the Kadett. She also found four black viscose fibres on Ms Sheehan’s navy pinafore type dress, 20 black viscose fibres on the deceased’s brown tights and two black viscose fibres on nail scrapings taken from the victim’s right hand, all of which matched the fibres taken from the carpet inside the car.

Dr Smith also found fragments of blue metallic paint on the sellotape lifts taken from Ms Sheehan’s coat, dress and shoe, which matched that on the car. There were 26 fragments of green paint on her tights, which matched green paint fragments recovered in debris from the Kadett. She also found two fragments of light blue paint on the tights, which matched fragments of blue and white paint taken from debris in the motor vehicle. Finally, she removed a number of red foam fragments from the dress and tights, which matched numerous items of red foam found in the Kadett.

Forensic scientist Dr Sheila Willis said the fragments of blue paint found on Ms Sheehan’s shoe consisted of three layers - metallic blue, grey and dark grey - which matched the control paint from the car in both colour and composition. The deceased’s tights contained numerous prills and small circular pieces of metal and she said that similar prills and metal were “plentiful” in the metal of the motorcar.

After examining the findings, forensic scientist Amanda Lennon said there was “very strong support” for the view that Ms Sheehan had been in Long’s car.

Murder case review

In 2008, a serious crime review team in An Garda Síochána was tasked with reexamining the murder of Ms Sheehan. As part of the review, the microscopic slide containing semen retrieved from her body was reassessed “with an eye to modern scientific developments”, the science of DNA in particular.

The slide was sent to the UK to generate a DNA profile as Ireland, at the time, lacked the techniques to interpret such small amounts of DNA. Scientist and DNA specialist Dr Jonathan Whitaker, of Forensic Science Services (FSS) in Birmingham, used a profiling technique called low copy number (LCN) to generate a DNA profile. A male partial profile (or incomplete profile) was developed from the seminal part of the sample in the microscope slide.

Dr Whitaker said LCN was the most appropriate method available as it maximised the chance of getting a DNA profile from the sample, which he noted was quite old and had been taken from the decomposed body of the victim.

The witness, who has specialised in DNA profiling for more than 30 years, said LCN was developed by FSS in around 25 years ago and has been applied to forensic cases since 2002.

The trial heard however, that the technique was not without its controversies.

Dr Whitaker told the trial the biggest challenge mounted to LCN came in 2007 at the trial of Sean Hoey in relation to the Omagh bombing, when the judge had an issue with the validation of the technique and there was a temporary suspension of the test in the UK and Wales and a review of the methodology.

In December 2007, then 38-year-old Mr Hoey, from Jonesborough, south Armagh, was found not guilty of the murder of 29 people in the 1998 bombing by Mr Justice Weir at Belfast Crown Court. He had maintained his innocence throughout the trial.

A review, undertaken at the time by Prof Brian Caddy, examined the validity and reliability of the test. His review concluded in April 2008 that there was no reason to believe there was any unreliability in LCN testing, but recommended a quantification step be introduced into its methodology. The LCN method stopped being used in 2012 after it was superseded by further developments in DNA profile testing.

‘The man in the beanie hat’

The trial heard the male partial profile or incomplete profile was later matched to DNA recovered from a beanie hat taken from Long in 2021, when a search warrant was executed on his home in Passage West. Dr Whitaker said the probability of the recovered DNA profile originating from someone unrelated “to the man in the beanie hat” would be one in 23,000.

Dr Dorothy Ramsbottom said based on a database of the Irish population, it was at least 20,000 times more likely that the recovered DNA was a match to that found on the beanie hat rather than an unrelated person.

In his closing speech to the jury, Long’s defence counsel Michael Delaney SC said LCN had a limited life cycle before becoming obsolete in 2012. He said its use in the UK lab which developed the technique was very limited and only three labs outside the UK had adopted the method.

“Dr Whitaker didn’t agree with that proposition but you can form your own view,” he said.

Mr Delaney said the method was controversial during the Omagh bombing ruling and that numbers were appearing in the results that did not belong to the DNA profiles. “These stochastic effects are more likely to be seen when an amount of DNA is below a certain level,” he said.

“Dr Whitaker couldn’t say whether the amount of DNA tested in this case from the vaginal swab was above or below that threshold and he couldn’t say that because the amount of DNA wasn’t quantified before it was tested.”

Counsel said forensic scientist Kristen O’Connor, who ran the DNA profiling on the beanie hat, gave evidence that quantification is now part of an automated process in Forensic Science Ireland and it had been done for the last 10 years.

“The purpose of that quantification is to optimise the amount of DNA, if you put in too little DNA it can lead to these stochastic effects,” said counsel. He said it was not just the failure to quantify but the absence of any proper validation of the method at all on an international basis that should give the jury some degree of concern in relation to the reliability of the test.

Mr Delaney said the prosecution had overstated the significance of the match generated from the partial DNA profile and the profile found on the accused’s beanie hat.

Former State pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy, who was called by the defence, gave evidence that Ms Sheehan’s cause of death was unascertained. There was no evidence she was strangled. She agreed with prosecution lawyers that death from asphyxia by one of two methods could not be proved or disproved.

Dr Cassidy said it also could not be excluded that the victim had suffered a heart attack due to cardiac arrhythmia during an assault or that she could have been suffocated by her head being pressed into a bed or pillow. Given the deceased was found completely unclothed and with an injury to her vagina, she said it was possible she had been sexually assaulted.

‘Inescapable conclusion’

Closing the prosecution case earlier this week, Mr Grehan said the evidence all pointed to the “inescapable conclusion” that Ms Sheehan met her death in 1981 at the hands of Long. He said the prosecution’s case was built on two main planks; the forensic evidence obtained by scientists, and DNA profiling.

Mr Grehan told the jurors they were being asked to infer that after Ms Sheehan was last seen alive she came to be in a car, was badly assaulted and sexually assaulted, and was ultimately killed in the course of a vicious assault or to cover up her murderer’s “misdeeds”.

In his closing address, Mr Delaney said the case was wholly dependent on forensic science and there was nothing else to connect Mr Long to the deceased. He said the prosecution could not precisely say how Ms Sheehan met her death and reminded the jury that Dr Cassidy had said Ms Sheehan’s cause of death was unascertained and had put forward possibilities, one of which was asphyxia.

“Just a possibility, very far from beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

Counsel said the prosecution had failed to prove the intent required for murder and in those circumstances the most a jury could consider is a verdict of manslaughter.

However, the panel of seven men and four women on Friday morning unanimously accepted the prosecution’s case and found Long, who has a 1972 conviction for sexual offending and multiple previous assault convictions, guilty of Ms Sheehan’s murder.