In the summer of 2012, the Justice for Harry Gleeson Group approached the Irish Innocence Project with a set of documents, including trial transcripts and newspaper clippings, which they believed proved the man's innocence.
For years, the group had worked to clear to Co Tipperary man’s name, decades after he was convicted of murdering unmarried mother of seven Mary “Moll” McCarthy. Gleeson (38) found her body in field on his uncle’s farm at New Inn in November 1940. She had been shot in the face. Less than six months later, he was hanged.
Barrister David Langwallner, founder and director of the Irish Innocence Project, which is based at Griffith College in Dublin, was unsure at first. "I had to persuade the project to take the case," he says. "The project usually takes live cases, and this was a dead case."
Langwallner and his team of student investigators from Griffith College, TCD and DCU vet cases rigorously before accepting them, something he says is an important part of the clinical experience. Along with working to exonerate those wrongfully convicted, a goal of the project is hands-on education for the students.
“In many ways it’s better than legal practice because the student is given ownership and a significant amount of responsibility over the particular case,” Langwallner says. The project’s 25 students and eight supervising lawyers volunteer their time. A registered charity, it operates on donations and offers its legal and investigative services pro bono.
Taking the case
Langwallner and Tertius Van Eeden, a former law student at Griffith who has since graduated, took on Gleeson’s case. “I was lucky to be the lead and only caseworker on the Gleeson case under David’s supervision,” says Van Eeden, a former chef who is originally from South Africa. “I started reading reams and reams of the trial transcripts and came across specific times where the judge asked for the gun register [which recorded ammunition purchases] and the prosecution never showed it to him.”
The Justice for Harry Gleeson Group had found this register and given it to the project. If produced at trial, it would have undermined the prosecution's case that Gleeson used a certain type of bullet to kill McCarthy. The book recorded the purchase of a type of bullet different from those found near the body.
Langwallner says the book would have been hugely significant from a defence lawyer’s point of view. “If you were aware of that, you would have gotten the case quashed at trial.”
Another piece of evidence that stood out was the victim’s body temperature, which was recorded as 35.5 degrees Celsius five hours after Gleeson found it. “The State’s case was that he killed her the day before and left her in the field overnight,” Van Eeden says. “They said the body was lying in the field for more than 15 hours in freezing temperatures.”
However the body's warmth undermined that claim, Van Eeden adds, noting the general forecast by Met Éireann that day was "pretty grim". "There was no way this body temperature could have been recorded unless she was murdered in the morning and dumped there," he says.
The team contacted Massachusetts-based forensic pathologist Dr Peter Cummings to review the postmortem. Dr Cummings took part in the 2013 documentary Cold Case JFK, in which he examined the former president's postmortem photographs and clothing.
"He was able to establish a time of death that supported Harry Gleeson's alibi," according to Anne Driscoll, who joined the Irish Innocence Project in 2013 as a Fulbright scholar. A US journalist who has written for the Boston Globe and the New York Times, she is now the project manager.
The project compiled its evidence and submitted the case for a posthumous pardon to the Department of Justice in 2013.
Almost 75 years after Gleeson was hanged and buried in Mountjoy Prison, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald is preparing to issue the State's first posthumous pardon. The pardon comes "after 2½ years of drafting submissions, late hours and sleepless nights", Van Eeden says.
“It’s a small victory because we can’t bring back the life of someone taken away. I still don’t know what to make of it. It just seems like it took too long to get a pardon for a man who was obviously innocent,” he adds.
Historic case, modern issues
Langwallner founded the Irish Innocence Project in 2009. It is part of the Innocence Network, a worldwide group of organisations that work to redress wrongful convictions and highlight the miscarriages of justice that lead to them.
The project’s submission to the Department of Justice included evidence of prosecutorial and police misconduct in the Gleeson case. Those are the types of problems that the Innocence Network hopes to reform in modern-day criminal justice systems. “We hope to enhance public understanding of wrongful convictions, particularly as a human rights issue, because this is really one of the newest human rights campaigns,” Driscoll says.
According to Langwallner, that means improving the quality of expertise, lawyering and police training and investigative techniques. The pardon has attracted international attention, including from Gleeson’s distant relatives abroad. The daughter of Gleeson’s grandniece emailed the Innocence Project last week.
"I simply wanted to convey my deep gratitude – as a lawyer and a relative – for your tireless work," wrote Christine Sgarlata Chung, an associate professor at Albany Law School in New York. "Now more than ever, justice and the rule of law matter. Although justice came too late to save Mr Gleeson, having his name finally cleared means a great deal."