Man executed for Cork murder 125 years ago may receive pardon

A report on the circumstances of a murder that took place in Co Cork 125 years ago could lead to posthumous pardon of the man who was executed for the crime.

Independent expert advice has been sought into the case of John Twiss who was hanged in Cork County Jail on February 9th, 1895, for the murder on April 21st, 1894, of James Donovan, caretaker of a farm at Glenlara near Newmarket, Co Cork, where the tenants had been evicted.

Mr Twiss, who lived in Cordal, near Castleisland, Co Kerry, was widely believed to have been innocent of the murder.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said she expected to receive the report shortly on “the safety, or otherwise, of the conviction”, from UCD associate professor Niamh Howlin, an expert on 19th-century trial law.

Following an initial consideration of the case Department of Justice officials believed the conviction “might be considered unsafe”. The Minister made the comments in a response to a parliamentary question from Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin.

The Kerry TD brought the case to then minister Charlie Flanagan following a campaign by the Michael O’Donoghue Memorial Heritage Project, a Castleisland-based organisation “which has been trying for a long time along with his relatives to have him exonerated”.

Mr Griffin said the BBC did a documentary on the case “and got barristers and solicitors to look at the defence and prosecution and they found it was an unsafe conviction. It was practically impossible for him to have been at the scene on the night.”

He said he brought the case to Mr Flanagan after a presidential pardon was granted in 2018 to Myles Joyce one of three Connemara men hanged for the murder of a family of five, also called Joyce, in their home in Maamtrasna on the Galway/Mayo border in 1882.

Only four presidential pardons have been awarded since 1937, and the Maamtrasna case was the first where a pardon was issued for an offence that occurred before the State’s foundation.

Mr Griffin said that “when John Twiss went to the gallows, he swore on his dying breath that he was innocent”.

He added: “John’s case was conducted in English and he didn’t speak English so there wasn’t a proper defence conducted.”

For Mr Twiss’s great-grandniece and great-grandnephew Helen O’Connor and Denis Sayers “it’s a matter of great injustice”, said Mr Griffin. “This is a wrong they want to see righted.”

Ms McEntee said work on the report is largely completed “save for some issues which will involve accessing the National Archives once they are open again”.

The Minister said she would consider the report and if a pardon is recommended she will bring that to Government for approval. It would then go to President Michael D Higgins to decide following advice of Government that a pardon should be granted.

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