A GARDA killer is set for imminent release after the Supreme Court ruled he is entitled to remission on his 40-year jail term.
Noel Callan, who was convicted of murdering Sgt Patrick Morrissey, has been in jail since June 1985 – just over 28 years.
He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in December 1985, but this was commuted six months later to 40 years' penal servitude by then president Patrick Hillery.
Callan and his co-accused, Michael McHugh, who fired the fatal shot, were the last two men to be sentenced to death in Ireland.
When Callan challenged the refusal to consider him for an earlier release for good behaviour, the Government argued that he was not serving a sentence and was not entitled to remission as he was serving a "commutation".
But this and other claims by the State were rejected yesterday as "a nonsense" by a five-judge Supreme Court. They said Callan, described as a "model prisoner", is entitled to be considered for remission – up to a third for good behaviour.
Under normal prison rules, he could have expected to be released by 2016. But he may be freed almost immediately owing to his behaviour behind bars.
The State had earlier argued that the death sentence had been commuted on the basis of no remission.
But a document produced in court indicated there had been no mention of refusing remission in the advice given by the government to the president to commute the sentence.
Last night the general secretary of the Garda Representative Association, PJ Stone, attacked the State for its ineptitude or lack of care in failing to ensure that remission should have been denied.
"Yet again the State has failed to properly protect the gardai and others, who risk their lives in the line of duty," he added.
He said that, because of that failure, Callan was entitled to benefit from the Supreme Court decision to set him free without completing his sentence.
Five years after the murder, the then justice minister Ray Burke introduced legislation that repealed the death sentence and replaced it with a minimum 40 years for the murder of a garda, prison officer or diplomat and not less than 20 for attempted murder.
The murder of Sgt Morrissey, who earlier this year was posthumously awarded the freedom of Drogheda for his sacrifice on behalf of the community, shocked the nation and led to calls to allow gardai to carry guns.
The unarmed officer was shot dead in June, 1985 by McHugh as he lay helpless on the ground after being shot earlier in the leg.
He had pursued the two raiders to Tallanstown, Co Louth, after they had held up the labour exchange in Ardee and made off with £25,000.
As the sergeant was on the the ground, McHugh walked up to him minutes later and shot him again in the face – an act described by Supreme Court Judge Adrian Hardiman as "cold-blooded murder".
Mr Justice Hardiman paid tribute to Sgt Morrissey, who he said was "a courageous, indeed heroic, servant of the State".
But he severely criticised the State, which changed its line of defence three times during the lengthy challenge.
Sgt Morrissey's widow, Bernadette, who attended yesterday's ruling, had no comment to make after learning of the Supreme Court decision.
Earlier this year, Mrs Morrissey, accompanied by her son Martin, daughters Aideen and Mary and grandchildren accepted the posthumous award granted to her late husband.
Callan (50), formerly of Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, was 22 when convicted by the non-jury Special Criminal Court in December 1985 of the capital murder of Sgt Morrissey (49) at Rathbrist, Tallanstown, on June 27, 1985, along with McHugh, of Crossmaglen, Co Armagh.