Man executed for Cork murder 126 years ago to receive posthumous pardon

John Twiss was convicted of the murder of John Donovan and executed in January 1895

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee secured Government approval on Tuesday to recommend to President Michael D Higgins that he exercise his right to pardon  John Twiss. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee secured Government approval on Tuesday to recommend to President Michael D Higgins that he exercise his right to pardon John Twiss. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

A report into the circumstances of a murder that took place in Co Cork 126 years ago has led to a posthumous pardon for the man executed for the crime.

The Minister for Justice Helen McEntee secured Government approval on Tuesday to recommend to President Michael D Higgins that he exercise his right to pardon Mr John Twiss, who was convicted of the murder of John Donovan and executed in January 1895.

It comes after an expert report found that Mr Twiss was wrongfully convicted in the historic case.

Noting the rarity of this course of action, Ms McEntee said the granting of a presidential pardon is a “rare occurrence and a very high bar must be reached for consideration to be given by Government to make such a recommendation to the President”.

The case was well known and was regarded as a “clear historic injustice”, Minister McEntee said, particularly by people living in Co Kerry, where Mr Twiss lived at the time.

Dr Niamh Howlin, an expert in 19th century trial law and an associate professor in the Sutherland School of Law in UCD was engaged by the Department of Justice to provide a report on the case.

Dr Howlin considered the various aspects of Mr Twiss’ case, including the identification evidence, witness testimony, and the conduct of the trial.

She concluded her report by stating that Twiss was convicted “on the basis of circumstantial evidence that can best be described as flimsy, following a questionable investigation”.

“The problematic aspects of this case are like ‘strands in a rope’ which together lead to the conclusion that the nature and extent of the evidence against Twiss could not safely support a guilty verdict,” Dr Howlin said.

While it should not be forgotten that a life was taken, it was “clear” to the Minister that the evidence against Mr Twiss and the manner in which that evidence was obtained by the authorities “in no way safely support a guilty verdict, even judging by the prevailing standards at the time,” Ms McEntee said.

The Taoiseach is now making arrangements to convey the Government’s decision to President Higgins, she said.

Only four presidential pardons have been awarded since 1937, most recently, to Myles Joyce, one of three Connemara men hanged for the murder of a family of five in their home in Maamtrasna on the Galway and Mayo border in 1882.

The Maamstrasna case was the first where a pardon was issued for an offence that occurred before the State’s foundation.

The Twiss case had been the subject of a BBC documentary and a campaign by the Michael O’Donoghue Memorial Heritage project, an organisation which alongside Mr Twiss’s relatives had been trying to have him exonerated.

For Mr Twiss’s great-grandniece and great-grandnephew Helen O’Connor and Denis Sayers, his conviction and execution were “a matter of great injustice,” said Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin, who initially brought the case to the attention of then minister Charlie Flanagan in 2018.

“This is a wrong they want to see righted,” Mr Griffin said.