Why you should care

Because all wrongful convictions are a double miscarriage of justice — the innocent are punished while criminals run free.

Late one night in April 1941, an Irish farmhand called for his lawyer, Seán MacBride, to share a final few words with the man who’d desperately tried to save him. “I will pray tomorrow that whoever did it will be discovered … I rely on you, then, to clear my name.” Harry Gleeson added that he had no confession to make because he simply didn’t do it. But he swung just hours later.

MacBride would accomplish great things, like helping found Amnesty International and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but he was not able to clear Gleeson’s name. That task fell to David Langwallner and Tertius Van Eeden of the Irish Innocence Project, whose research shone a light on a shameful miscarriage of justice and led to Gleeson’s exoneration this year — the first posthumous pardon in the history of the Free State of Ireland.

Gleeson could not possibly have killed her, and the authorities knew it.

In November 1940, in the small east Irish town of New Inn, County Tipperary, Gleeson was finishing his daily rounds on his uncle’s farm alongside co-worker Tommy Reid when he stumbled across the body of Mary McCarthy. She had been shot twice in the face. A brazen woman, McCarthy had fathered seven children with various local married men. Gleeson, a sociable man who was invested in his community, quickly informed the police of what he’d found. Within hours, he was accused of McCarthy’s murder. Only Gleeson could not possibly have killed her, and the authorities knew it.

Reid came to Gleeson’s defense, explaining how the two had been working together far from the scene of the crime when the murder took place. But this contradicted Reid’s initial statement, which he said came after he was beaten by police. Other witnesses were never called upon to testify, and the case quickly got stacked against Gleeson, leading to his conviction. MacBride found no fewer than 17 reasons to appeal the guilty sentence, ranging from improper comments from the judge to faulty evidence, but the case stayed closed.

Harry Gleeson was an accomplished fiddle player.

Gleeson was an accomplished fiddle player.

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When the Irish Innocence Project took on the case in 2012 at the behest of the Justice for Harry Gleeson group, they did so with new evidence, modern technology and political stability — all of which were lacking 70 years ago. American pathologist Dr. Peter Cummings was called on to review McCarthy’s autopsy, and he confirmed that the time of death was in the early morning, when it had been established that Gleeson was making his rounds. By poring over trial manuscripts, Van Eeden discovered that the judge had asked for a gun register that recorded Gleeson’s ammunition, but the prosecution never provided it. But the Justice for Harry Gleeson group, composed of Gleeson’s remaining family and friends, had found the document, which showed that the defendant’s gun used different bullets than those fired by the killer.

So who shot McCarthy? Spurned lover? Jealous wife? Kieran Fagan, author of The Framing of Harry Gleeson, believes the murder was politically motivated. In post–civil war Ireland, the police were often at odds with a faction of the IRA that opposed how the new state had been created. Fagan writes that local IRA members believed McCarthy was snitching to the authorities and needed to be eliminated. The police, eager to end the scandal that was giving New Inn a bad name, were glad to have a suspect and not keen on investigating further. Kevin Gleeson, Harry Gleeson’s great-nephew, explains that it was a time when “the people of Ireland believed without question that the justice system could not err.” So while many locals knew Gleeson had done nothing wrong, they were “too daunted by the challenge” to protest the verdict.

It was heartbreaking for Gleeson’s loved ones: His 11 siblings, in a bid to protect their mother, who had immigrated to America, decided not to tell her what had happened, according to Anne Driscoll, journalism project manager of the Irish Innocence Project, who was also involved in Angel Echavarria’s exoneration and release. And the exoneration serves as a reminder of Ireland’s “long history of all sorts of injustices,” Driscoll adds — a cloud that, according to Kevin Gleeson, “blighted the lives of Harry’s family and friends.”

Elated by its success, the Irish Innocence Project will host its first International Conference on Wrongful Convictions and film festival on June 26 and 27 in Dublin. Invited guests include actors Aidan Quinn, Bob Balaban and Tony Goldwyn and director Ken Burns. Driscoll hopes the events “will increase public awareness, promote the role of law and the media in addressing this issue, and inspire a new generation of young people to get involved.” Films, after all, are a great vehicle for helping folks “understand a complex social issue like wrongful convictions,” she says.

Gleeson’s is not the only posthumous victory. Describing the trial as “one of the most traumatic cases” he was ever involved in, MacBride continued to campaign against Ireland’s death penalty, which was eventually abolished in 1990 — two years after his own death.

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