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Sunday 25 June 2017

Meave Sheehan: Two decades on, closure for the Connemara neighbour falsely convicted of child sex abuse

Michael Hannon welcomes out-of-court settlement over miscarriage of justice case, but still awaits an apology

Michael Feichin Hannon pictured in 2009, and Una Hardester, who returned to retract her claims which divided the rural community
Michael Feichin Hannon pictured in 2009, and Una Hardester, who returned to retract her claims which divided the rural community
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The Minister for Justice has reached an out-of-court settlement with a Connemara man who was falsely accused of sexual assault by the daughter of a one-time Hollywood actor.

Michael Feichin Hannon was wrongly convicted of sexual assault and assault of the 10-year-old girl in 1997. The case was declared a miscarriage of justice in 2009 when his accuser, Una Hardester, retracted her statement.

Miscarriage of justice victim Michael Feichin Hannon
Miscarriage of justice victim Michael Feichin Hannon

The settlement of his High Court claim for compensation on October 13, after a seven-year wait, brings closure to what judges described as a "disturbing and alarming" case that has dragged on for almost 20 years.

The minister, Frances Fitzgerald, and Mr Hannon, declined to comment on the settlement. But in a statement to the Sunday Independent, Mr Hannon said: "The conclusion of the case is a relief as we can finally put the legal aspect of the case behind us and try to start rebuilding our lives, case free and blame free."

His ordeal was spawned by the false claims of a troubled child caught up in her parents' land dispute in the west of Ireland. Even after Una Hardester recanted, State agencies compounded Mr Hannon's ordeal by losing his file, delaying for more than a year before releasing to him the statement that would clear him, and protesting against his case being declared a miscarriage of justice.

Crofton Hardester's decision to move his family from New York to Connemara in 1993 had far-reaching and unforeseen consequences. He was an actor who had roles in prime-time 1990s TV shows such as the A-Team, The Fall Guy and The Equalizer. He later told gardai it was a "bad decision" to walk away from all that work.

Una Hardester who returned to retract her claims
Una Hardester who returned to retract her claims

He bought a smallholding of nine acres in Aughrismore, near Cleggan, where he lived with his wife Katherine and his two daughters, Una and Evian.

The Hannons were their neighbours. From the start, they were in dispute over land - a row that escalated with bitter intensity and reached a point of no return.

Crofton's wife Katherine Hardester wrote years later in a blog: "Sadly, our children were exposed to a never-ending cycle of violence and retribution, all of it over a thin strip of land between two fields."

To Una, it "felt like war". In the lengthy statement of retraction she wrote years later, she said: "The feud between my family and the Hannons divided the entire community of Aughrismore and, to a certain extent, Clifden as well. There was no rest from it, not in church, not in school, not at play, not in the shops. It was the local drama, the best education in town."

Against this toxic backdrop, Una Hardester concocted a story that would irrevocably damage Michael Feichin Hannon, her neighbour's then 21-year-old son, and have a lasting impact on her own family. She later said that she was neither coerced, nor coached, nor encouraged to do so; she did so out of a sense of "revenge" and "misplaced loyalty" to her parents, and in the poignant hope that she and her mother would move back to America.

On a Monday afternoon in January, 1997, when she was 10 years old, she ran past the Hannons' house and down the hill towards her friend's home, her knees muddy, wet and her face "all muck". She had fallen on the road. Her story was that "the Hannon boy" had grabbed her from behind, put one hand on her mouth and sexually assaulted her. She claimed he jabbed a stone into her body, beat her with a stick and pushed her head into a well before fleeing. She repeated the story to her friend's parents, to her own parents, to gardai and at the hospital.

A doctor and a nurse found little wrong with her. In her statement, the nurse said Una had a bruise over her right knee and a slight bruise on her hip. She did not appear distressed and was "composed".

In his statement, the doctor said he found "no obvious contusions, bruises or abrasions. The bruises on her knees were old and "consistent with the minor trauma of a playing child". There was no forensic evidence.

When Michael Feichin Hannon was arrested two weeks later, gardai were incredulous at his insistent denials.

"How do you think a 10-year-old could assault herself, put her head into a well, get weeds and mud into her face and eyes, get bruises and have her body medically examined by a gynaecologist?" asked one garda. "Do you think she could assault herself and blame you?"

"I haven't done anything," he replied.

As it turned out, that was exactly what she had done. Nevertheless, in 1999, Michael Feichin Hannon was convicted of assault and sexual assault before a jury in the absence of forensic evidence and largely on Una Hardester's testimony. He was lucky to receive a four-year suspended sentence, which meant he wouldn't go to jail. He did not appeal.

Mr Hannon was forced to move away from his community. His name was blackened for a crime that he did not commit.

The Hardesters moved back to America. Una later said in her statement of retraction that she "lived with her cancerous guilt every day". It was present "at every moment" and had "eaten away" at her.

She returned to Ireland to retract her claims against Mr Hannon in late 2006 when she was 20. She presented herself to Clifden Garda station in December, 2006 and told them that she didn't come forward sooner because "I was a coward" and "because I did not have the financial means to get back to Ireland".

She was "deeply remorseful", more than anyone could understand. She had found God and was trying to pay back her moral debt to society through good deeds. She had done something "terribly wrong" and wanted to clear Mr Hannon's name.

Gardai sent her statement to the Director of Public Prosecutions. But no one in authority thought to inform Mr Hannon. The only reason he got wind of it was because Una Hardester happened to bump into his sister at a petrol station in Clifden and told her.

Mr Hannon's solicitor wrote repeatedly to the DPP's office asking for a copy of Una's statement. But the DPP's office kept on stalling. Eventually, in March 2008, the DPP finally supplied the statement that would exonerate Mr Hannon - 15 months after Una Hardester had made it. The DPP's office apologised for the delay. It had "mislaid" Mr Hannon's file.

Mr Hannon's conviction was quashed in February, 2009. In April of that year his case was declared a miscarriage of justice despite the objections from the DPP's office which argued that the State had done nothing wrong.

Mr Hannon declined to be interviewed last week, but he did respond to some questions. He said he still hadn't received an apology - formal or informal - from any State agency.

The DPP had never told him how his file came to be mislaid, he said. "Nor have there been any explanations as to why the retracted statement was not forwarded to me or my legal team."

Although the then Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, was reportedly examining the Garda file on his case following the miscarriage of justice declaration in 2009, Mr Hannon was never apprised of the outcome.

Michael D Higgins, now President, was among those who called for an inquiry into the delay in the DPP's office at that time - but there never was one.

Mr Hannon said he would still like to see one: "Yes, I would like to see an inquiry, even at this late stage. There were so many areas which need to be addressed, such as communication with the innocent survivors of miscarriage of justice regarding their files, and State examinations."

Una Hardester, now 30, went on to work in human rights. She attempted to contact Mr Hannon after the miscarriage of justice certificate was issued "with a view to an apology", he said. "Unfortunately I was not in a position to speak to her at this time. However, I would like to reiterate that I hold no ill will against Una Hardester. She was only a child at the time and, no matter what, she did come forward and retract the statement, for without this I would never have been able to assert my innocence today."

His generosity of spirit is in spite of what he has been through. Asked to describe the impact on his life, he said: "It is impossible to summarise the impact of a wrongful conviction on a person. However, I can say that some of the most harrowing impacts on my life were having to move away from my home and my family, losing my job, and being perceived as a child abuser in public and in the community, also knowing my family had to live through all of that in their own community."

He asked that a personal statement, thanking those that helped him, be published in full: "I would like to take this opportunity to thank my legal team, senior counsel Hugh Hartnett and barrister Philip Rhan, my personal legal assistant Teresa Clyne, my solicitors Stephen Woods and especially David Thompson for their work and dedication in bringing my case to this final conclusion.

"I also wish to thank my wife, family and friends for supporting me throughout this difficult period.

"Finally I would like to thank the media for ensuring the privacy and interests of my family and children have been respected since my exoneration. I confirm there will be no further comments by myself or my family on this case."

Sunday Independent

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