State facing significant compensation bill over miscarriage of justice

Louth man spent 14 months in prison after 2017 conviction for IRA membership

In June 2018, the Court of Appeal had set aside the applicant’s conviction and ordered a retrial. File photograph: Getty

In June 2018, the Court of Appeal had set aside the applicant’s conviction and ordered a retrial. File photograph: Getty

 

The State is facing a significant compensation bill after the Special Criminal Court ruled a man who spent 14 months in prison on an IRA membership charge was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

Michael Connolly (47) was convicted in the non-jury court after an Assistant Garda Commissioner gave belief evidence that he was a member of the IRA.

Unlike other courts, the Special Criminal Court can accept the belief evidence of high-ranking gardaí in such cases as long as it is based on material that is independent to the evidence before the court.

In Mr Connolly’s case, it emerged the basis for Assistant Commissioner Michael O’Sullivan’s belief evidence was also contained in the book of evidence against the accused, resulting in a danger of it being “double-counted”.

In a judgment published on Monday declaring a miscarriage of justice, the court said there was a “grave defect” in the administration of justice in the case brought about “by agents of the State”.

It ruled Mr O’Sullivan had made “an unqualified assertion” during the trial that none of the material that formed the basis of his belief was in the book of evidence against the accused.

The Special Criminal Court described this assertion as “seriously incomplete and misleading”.

Miscarriage of justice determinations are extremely rare. It is understood there have only been about 12 such declarations in the last 30 years.

Under the Criminal Justice Procedure Act 1993, the issuing of a miscarriage of justice declaration allows the defendant to apply to the Minister for Justice for compensation. The amount of compensation can also be appealed to the High Court.

Difficult to guess

Legal sources said on Monday it is difficult to guess how much Mr Connolly may be entitled to, given the confidential nature of most previous pay-outs.

The length of time he spent in prison- 14 months – will be a major factor, as will the impact the prosecution had on his personal life. “It essentially becomes a personal injury case,” one experienced solicitor said.

Lawyers who have worked in previous miscarriage of justice cases said Mr Connolly may be entitled to between €300,000 and €1 million or possibly more.

In 2007 Donegal publican Frank Shortt received a final pay-out of €4.6 million in damages for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment on charges that he allowed drug dealing at his former premises.

However, Mr Shortt’s case involved a far more serious degree of State wrongdoing than occurred in Mr Connolly’s prosecution.

Gardaí conspired to concoct false evidence against Mr Shortt while in Mr Connolly’s case the judges accepted the Assistant Commissioner was not trying to mislead the court.

The three-judge panel said it was satisfied it was “careless” of the Garda officer to make the relevant assertion without “being aware at least of the general nature of the alleged independent supporting evidence disclosed” in the book of evidence.

Mr Connolly, of Grange Drive in Dundalk, Co Louth, had pleaded not guilty to membership of the IRA after he had been observed by gardaí driving in convoy on December 16th, 2014, with another man who was then found with two improvised explosive devices.

Retrial

He was convicted in 2017. The next year the Court of Appeal overturned the conviction and ordered a retrial.

In a 2019 retrial Mr Connolly was acquitted after the court found it could not rely on the Assistant Commissioner’s belief evidence as being separate from the evidence of the accused’s movements on December 16th, 2014.

The court said there was reasonable doubt over whether the Garda had impermissibly double-counted evidence in arriving at his belief.